Danny De Gracia: A Casino Won't Resolve Hawaii's Broken Promises To Hawaiians

Monday 28th December 2020

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

Thomas Jefferson has often been misquoted as having said, "If the American people ever allow private banks to control the issue of their currency, first by inflation, then by deflation, then the banks and corporations that will grow up around them will deprive the people of all property until their children wake up homeless on the continent their Fathers conquered."

While the original author of that statement is not known, there is a kernel of truth to be found in how it perfectly describes the plight of today's Native Hawaiians in the Aloha State.

Native Hawaiians find themselves lagging in almost every indicator of success, attainment, or quality of life compared to others in the islands. Officially designated a "vulnerable population" by both state and federal government, a lesser-known study conducted by public health professionals even found that ZIP codes where higher proportions of Hawaiians resided seemed to have lower average life expectancies than others.

The plight of Hawaiians is an issue that is both politically and culturally difficult to broach in 2020. Whenever rankings by mainland organizations reveal that the State of Hawaii or its Hawaiian population lag in some regard, there is often a local tendency to dismiss these findings outright.

"These people are not trained in the Hawaiian way of knowledge, which does not value money or property," some will argue. "Lucky we live Hawaii!" others will say, as if the sheer fact that one lives among beaches and warm sunshine somehow outweighs high costs of living, poor health conditions, and miserable job prospects. "Pull yourselves up by your own bootstraps!" they would have us believe.

But the simple fact of the matter is that if this state's namesake, Hawaiians, find themselves homeless, impoverished, and lacking hope for the future, then what is the point of our state government?

The vote last week by the Hawaiian Homes Commission to allow for gambling on lands owned by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, like so many other revenue-generation schemes over the years, was met with glowing optimism by state officials and stark cynicism by locals -- not just Hawaiians.

State officials seem to think that a casino could create jobs and provide revenue to fund the expensive bureaucracy that has Gov. David Ige and members of the legislature wringing their hands trying to figure out how to pay for it. Many locals, by contrast, are wondering how the state could possibly extract the kinds of casino profits needed when the rest of Hawaii businesses are imploding, and see this as a mercenary play when DHHL still has yet to fulfill its promise to Hawaiians on the homestead waiting list.

While I have written in the past that things like legalized gambling and a state lottery would be beneficial to the economy, Hawaiians need more than just a niche casino in Kapolei to reverse decades of decline and the inability to accrue and pass on generational wealth.

If state officials honestly think that they can build a casino targeted at foreign visitors, attract the kinds of crowds needed to remain profitable in the middle of an ongoing pandemic, and then magically divide the spoils among the pricey state "departments of everything" to help Hawaiians, they are truly out of touch.

For starters, big players who go to Macau, Singapore, or Las Vegas are not going to be convinced by a half-assed casino with no parking and no view in Oahu. And can you honestly see the state, with its outdated recruiting, hiring someone competently obsessing over all the details, all the time in the casino? I don't think so.

We have to do better than just dangle casinos on Hawaiian lands. This very proposal smacks of corporatism - private profit at taxpayer expense - and would just create a monopoly for a politically connected few rather than spreading the wealth to all, let alone Hawaiians.

If you want to help Hawaiians and other local residents, you have to put them in a position to own property and land and monetize these things for their own profit. Instead, what we have is a post-plantation palace economy in Hawaii where the government bestows benefits and issues pay but no actual power to be financially independent or personally solvent.

To begin, it needs to be a top priority of DHHL to clear their waiting list of Hawaiians. It is unacceptable that a crisis exists where Hawaiians are dying before they receive lands promised to their families by the government. This state historically loves to make and break promises to Hawaiians, and that pattern of failure needs to stop.

Second, the Legislature and counties need to empower Hawaiians with more than just gimmicks and policy dead-ends. Hawaiians, as well as everyone else here, need fewer and lower fees on things they need, so they can actually have money to save. Everything from car registrations to property taxes and even the General Excise Tax have real implications for lower-income people in a place as expensive as Hawaii.

I don't believe that Hawaii should belong to the top slice of politicians, connected corporations, and the occasional billionaire that decides to buy out an island. Hawaii should be for Hawaiians, and this land should empower everyone here. State officials need to stop playing games with the future of locals, and address historical inequalities, fix disparities, and ensure a successful future for all of us.

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