Tuesday, the Hawaii State Senate held its first and only public hearing for HB1326 HD2.
Regular readers of this column know this bill is referred to by opponents as “the corporate water theft bill”.
And, those who are following this issue closely know that passage of HB1326 HD2 will result in a $62 million financial benefit to Alexander &Baldwin (A&B).
A&B has sold much of its land on Maui to an entity by the name of Mahi Pono. That sales contract includes a provision that requires A&B to guarantee a specific amount of water to Mahi Pono, within a specific time frame. If they fail to do so, A&B will be required to pay $62,000,000 to Mahi Pono.
One problem with this, is that A&B does not own the water, which by state constitution is a public trust resource. They have been using the water and utilizing “revocable permits”(RP’s) for a long, long time, but they do not own the water.
This dilemma for A&B has resulted in the subsequent creation of HB1326 HD2, which if passed by the legislature amends state law and grants A&B rights to continue diverting the streams. They then transfer those rights to Mahi Pono, and voila, A&B secures a $62 million benefit.
The public hearing was before the Senate Water and Land Committee, Chaired by Sen. Kai Kahele, and heard jointly with the Ways &Means Committee, Chaired by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz.
Ratcheting up further distrust of the process, Sen. Dela Cruz proposed and scheduled a duplicate doppelgänger bill with a different number (HB1171) intending to accomplish the same ends as HB1326 HD2. 72 hours after being scheduled, HB1171 was withdrawn.
Predictably the hearing was delayed, the room was too small, warm, and overflowing with people. The hallway outside was packed with testifiers awaiting their turn to enter, the door guarded by the Senate Sergeant at Arms.
As the hearing gaveled in (90 minutes after the original start time), the tension in the room could have been cut with a knife.
On one side of the issue were Native Hawaiians, small farmers, environmentalists, and progressives — representing all islands. On the other side were the high powered lobbyists representing A&B and Mahi Pono, backed up by representatives of big agricultural companies, all there to testify how concerned they were about small farmers.
In the middle caught in a vise of conflicting public interest, was an array of state senators, who would at the end of the day, be casting the deciding votes.
Chair Kahele gaveled in the meeting and immediately launched into the direct questioning of the Attorney General, the Chair of DLNR, and the Director of the Office of Environmental Quality Control (OEQC). The chair’s questioning of these department heads was exemplary.
It became ultimately very clear from the first few questions and answers that there was no legal basis for small farmers and ranchers to be swept up in this issue.
After the Department testimony the public followed. Residents who had traveled from all corners of our state came forward one at a time and shared their thoughts and feelings on the issue.
The hearing went on in this manner for the next several hours with the overwhelming sentiment of those who testified in person was to “kill the bill.” Approximately 604 residents also submitted written testimony in opposition. There were about 60 written testimonies in support and 100 others offering comments.
Every senator at this point knew that the passing of HB1326 HD2 would benefit Alexander and Baldwin to the tune of $62 million. Each of them also knew that the threat of water loss to small farmers, ranchers, and hydro producers, was grossly exaggerated.
At 6 p.m., after nearly six hours of testimony, the Chair recommended, and the joint committee agreed, to postpone decision making on the measure until Thursday at 4 p.m.
The experience and underlying message was that power truly does belong to the people when they’re united in their fight.
While this major hearing is over, the issue and the bill (HB1326 HD2), and the battle for control of Hawaii’s water is a long way from being over.
I encourage all to get involved in this important issue, and to contact your Kauai state senator, Senate President Ron Kouchi, and tell him directly your thoughts on the matter.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.