The architect of the Hawaiian Homes Commission’s proposed legislation to establish a state gaming commission and build a casino on a Department of Hawaiian Home Lands parcel in Kapolei, Oahu, on Monday said the bill is “an opportunity to have a conversation about a number of shortfalls the department faces.”
DHHL Deputy Chair Tyler Gomes said in a Honolulu Star-Advertiser Facebook Live stream the integrated resort and casino would add a “conservative estimate” of $30 million a year to the coffers of the department, which has a lengthy list of Native Hawaiians waiting for homesteads on about 203,000 acres of DHHL land statewide.
“I know there are people who have been waiting at least 30 years,” Gomes said. “But I think the bigger number and the more troubling number for the department is the estimation that if we continue producing homes and lots at the rate that we currently are — and assuming that no one is going to join the wait list after today, which we know is not going to happen — at that rate it would take us 182 years to address the wait list at the current funding level.
Gomes said the department needed about $140 million last year to adequately carry out its mission.
“Contrast that with the $20 million that we did receive from the Legislature,” he said.”
Hawaii is one of only two states that has no legalized form of commercial gambling — Utah is the other. The bill goes to Gov. David Ige, who has expressed opposition and will likely not introduce it in the 2021 legislative session that starts Jan. 20.
State Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, an Oahu Democrat whose father is a beneficiary, has said he’ll introduce it if Ige doesn’t.
Regardless, the bill, if introduced, faces an uphill battle in the Legislature. Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki have expressed misgivings about the legislation.
In addition, Sen. Mike Gabbard, an Oahu Democrat who represents the district in which DHHL plans to develop the casino, and Sen. Kurt Fevella, a Republican representing neighboring Ewa Beach and the House minority leader, oppose the proposal. Fevella led a small band of demonstrators outside last month’s commission meeting.
The measure, as written, would levy a 45% tax on lost wagers, with DHHL getting 80% and the state’s general fund the remaining 20%.
“The real problem is, nobody’s talking about how to address the $120 million shortfall between what we believe we need and what the state can afford to give us. And this bill does that. This bill, at the very least, promises an additional, reliable revenue stream … . Every year the department comes, sort of, with its hand out to the Legislature asking for money. And to that end, it would be incredibly helpful to the department to know that there was a dedicated stream of revenue that we could count on, every single year, to help bring that wait time down.”
Comments from livestream viewers were overwhelmingly against the proposal. One referred to DHHL as “the Department of Homeless Hawaiians.”
“So sad that some people would come to the most beautiful place on earth to stay inside and roll some dice,” another wrote.
Others decried the last-minute nature of the bill and the lack of notice to beneficiaries.
“Tyler Gomes and DHHL have not been transparent and that leaves many Hawaiians out of the decision making,” one said.
Not all the comments, however, were negative.
“DHHL is stuck,” said one viewer. “This is a real idea. Otherwise they will never meet the needs.”
Gomes said critics’ objections that casino gambling would cause an increase in crime, addiction and poverty are unfounded, and that studies in the 2010s in Louisiana, Pittsburgh and Massachusetts after casinos were developed debunk that theory.
“What the data actually shows is that the introduction of casinos did not cause a measurable spike in crime, in addiction, in poverty. And, in fact, in many of those areas, crime rates decreased,” he said.
“… There is no other way for us to solve this problem at hand right now. And what the data shows is that a lot of the fears just aren’t supported by the science. And … other regions don’t want to see a casino here because they don’t want to see us cutting into their profits. They continue to mislead the public, and they continue to capitalize on those fears.”
Email John Burnett at [email protected]