Ige opposes casino on Oahu DHHL land

Tuesday 29th December 2020

Gov. David Ige said Monday he opposes a proposal approved last week by the Hawaiian Homes Commission to build a casino on a Department of Hawaiian Home Lands parcel in Kapolei, Oahu.

On a Facebook Live stream by the Honolulu Star-Advertiser, Ige said he's "studied the issue for many years" and thinks it "doesn't really provide economic value to our community."

"It would change the nature of our hospitality industry, and I believe the benefits would not exceed the social costs of gambling here in the islands," Ige said. "... I think we're all committed to developing more homesteads and placing more of the beneficiaries in housing. But I don't believe casino gambling is the best way to do that."

The 58-page draft legislation that would authorize an appropriation of $5 million from the Hawaiian Home Lands trust fund "for the purpose of funding the operations of the Hawaii gaming commission" now goes to the governor, who will consider whether to submit it as part of his 2021 legislative package. The bill would allot the majority of taxes collected in the casino to the DHHL.

The Legislature convenes on Jan. 20.

Commission Chairman William Aila Jr., who also heads DHHL, cast the tie-breaking vote to approve the controversial measure, which passed 5-4.

Other votes in favor include Mike Kaleikini, East Hawaii commissioner, Oahu commissioners Russell Kaupu and Pauline Namu'o, and Kauai Commissioner Dennis Neves.

West Hawaii Commissioner David Ka'upu and commissioners Patty Kahanamoku-Teruya of Oahu, Randy Awo of Maui and Zachary Helm of Molokai voted against the proposal.

Aila cited the financial woes facing the DHHL, which has long wait lists with many beneficiaries waiting for decades -- and some dying while waiting -- for a homestead on about 203,000 acres of Hawaiian Homes Lands parcels statewide.

The casino proposal, which appeared on the agenda for this month's commission meeting, took many by surprise, with beneficiaries telling the Tribune-Herald on Dec. 16 neither the commission nor the department consulted them.

The idea of a Kapolei casino is also opposed by Sen. Mike Gabbard, a Democrat representing Kapolei, and Sen. Kurt Fevella, a Republican representing neighboring Ewa Beach. Fevella, the Senate minority leader, led a small band of demonstrators outside the commission meeting last week.

If Ige, as expected, excludes the bill from his 2021 legislative package, another legislator could introduce it during the session.

Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole of Oahu, who sits on the Hawaiian Affairs Committee and whose father is a beneficiary, told the Star-Advertiser he favors the measure and will introduce it if the governor doesn't.

Rep. Mark Nakashima, a Big Island Democrat whose district encompasses Hamakua, North Hilo and a portion of South Hilo, chairs the House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee. He said he's been "generally opposed to gaming in Hawaii ... because even a lottery would likely end up with a casino coming to open up shop."

"However, I do like DHHL's ingenuity and do believe we need to do something to get to the placement of Native Hawaiians on the lands," Nakashima said Monday. "I'm open to it in that it's something different. I'm not sure that this is the right different that would be good for all of Hawaii."

If introduced, the measure likely will face tough sledding, regardless, as Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki have both expressed reservations about gambling in Hawaii, the only state other than Utah to prohibit all forms of commercial gambling.

"If it came over from the Senate, we'd have to give serious consideration to it, but I don't foresee the House being the first one out of the box on the issue," Nakashima said.

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

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