Casino bill likely dead following deferral by House committee chair

  • QUINLAN

  • GOMES

Legislation to build the state’s first resort casino on Department of Hawaiian Home Lands on Oahu was dealt a major blow earlier today.

State Rep. Sean Quinlan, an Oahu Democrat and chairman of the House Economic Development Committee, deferred House Bill 359 without an explanation after impassioned testimony on both sides of the issue.

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DHHL officials say a casino would raise at least $30 million in annual revenue to put a dent in the DHHL’s housing wait list, which numbers about 28,000, but the Honolulu Police Department and Office of Prosecuting Attorney warned of increased crime, domestic abuse and sex trafficking.

Quinlan vowed to follow up with the DHHL to come up with creative ideas to generate revenue.

“We’re talking about building homes for Hawaiians, in their own home, in their own place. This is where they’re from,” Quinlan said. “… It is painful to me that every two years, I swear an oath on the Hawaii constitution, then every two years, we fail to follow up on that oath with the money that Hawaiians are owed in our state constitution.”

The Tribune-Herald reached out to Quinlan’s office to ask why he decided to table the bill, but didn’t receive a reply prior to publication.

The deferral likely kills the bill this legislative session, although a companion measure, Senate Bill 1321, has a 1 p.m. hearing Thursday in that chamber’s Hawaiian Affairs Committee.

DHHL Deputy Director Tyler Gomes, the bill’s author, told committee members that a single casino, depending on size, could generate between 2,000 and 7,000 new jobs.

He described the casino plan as “the only solution out there that currently exists” to help generate funding needed to start chipping away at $4.5 billion needed to serve “28,000 Native Hawaiians living and dying on the wait list, as we wait for an idea that is not coming.”

Gomes said it’s “clear that the undertones of institutionalized racism continue to dominate the discourse” surrounding DHHL funding, then invoked a gambling metaphor to illustrate his point.

“The lie that is told to Native Hawaiians and this department — that it’s not the cards you’re dealt, it’s how you’re playing them — is a dangerous one,” he said. “This bill may not result in a casino, but what it has resulted in is an important but growing discussion about the future of this program and the future of its funding.

“And it’s not just happening among the Native Hawaiian community; it’s happening amongst your constituents, as well. And the department is excited for the possibility of other innovative ideas we expect to see to generate the funds necessary to run this program in the future.”

Not surprisingly, even during an economic crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, the idea of casino gambling in Hawaii is controversial.

“While we appreciate the seemingly insurmountable challenge of ensuring that the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands is sufficiently funded to meet its goals and its mission, this is simply not the way to do it,” said Tricia Nakamatsu, a Honolulu deputy prosecutor. “This would be introducing an entirely new industry to the state … which has been proven, in many cases and generally across the board, to attract certain societal ills — higher crime rates … the most egregious of the crimes targeted at women, such as sex trafficking, domestic violence often connected with increased gambling, and gambling problems.”

The bill, while unpopular with many in the community, has broad union support, especially among the construction trades.

Makana Paris, a research analyst for the Hawaii Ironworkers Stabilization Fund, said passage of the bill would put DHHL on track to fulfill its core mission of providing homes for Native Hawaiians.

“Our state faces one of the worst economic downturns in its history,” Paris said. “The integrated resort that allows gambling would be a much-needed boost to the local economy and provide hundreds of construction jobs and thousands of long-term hospitality and retail jobs.”

Rep. Daniel Holt, an Oahu Democrat and the committee’s vice chairman, said he’s “not trying to blame anybody, but as one of the few Hawaiians in the Legislature, somebody’s got to say something.”

“Four billion dollars to build homes for the 28,000 people on the wait list, and we have no plan. This is not about a casino; this is about … funding for Native Hawaiians,” Holt said. “Both of our Hawaiian organizations in the government get nothing. (Office of Hawaiian Affairs) gets $15 million. DHHL? ‘We’ll see what happens every years, guys. Depends, depends, you know.’ The conditions of statehood, it’s in the constitution. It’s about priorities — and Hawaiians are not a priority.”

Calling the measure’s tabling “not an ideal outcome,” DHHL Chairman William Aila Jr. said he and the department “look forward to the future with hope.”

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“The accompanying Senate bill will be heard next week, and we thank the Legislature across the board for allowing this conversation to come to the table,” Aila said. “As we have previously commented, there are currently no other proposals to this scale that would close the gap of our funding shortfalls.”

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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