Hawaiian Home Lands given five-year deadline for legalized gambling

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It could be a long wait yet for Hawaii policy makers who would like to use revenues from yet-to-be legalized gaming to invest in the infrastructure of the islands, with a deadline of December 2026 set for a firm yes or no decision. 

In a move late last week by the Senate Committee on Hawaiian Affairs, an amendment was made to bill SB 1321 handing power to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) to establish a legal gaming sector. 

It was welcomed by Hawaiian Homes Commission Chair William J Aila Jr who said: “We are supportive of the amendments made by the Senate Committee on Hawaiian Affairs to SB 1321 that would allow the Hawaiian Homes Commission and their beneficiaries the authority to create a gaming operation.

“If successful, this measure would provide DHHL a consistent source of funding in order to develop homestead lots. That is our purpose, and in order to do that, the Department needs a consistent source of funding for infrastructure construction.”

Under the terms of the amended bill, the DHHL would need a ‘super majority’ to ratify the introduction of casinos across the islands, although not on native land. 

The bill itself drives home the dire need for investment to build new homes, with a growing black hole in the islands’ development budget. It stated: “The legislature further finds that over 28,000 native Hawaiians are awaiting homestead leases while the department of Hawaiian home lands struggles to develop land and lots.  

“Current costs for infrastructure development, borne by the department, are in excess of $150,000 per lot. In order to fulfill the needs of the current waitlist, the department requires over $6,000,000,000 for infrastructure costs alone to serve its beneficiaries. This significant sum is separate and apart from costs for maintenance of existing lessee communities housing nearly 10,000 beneficiaries, upkeep of several utility systems, and other costs.  

“Over the last decade, the legislature has funded the department at levels higher than in years past, which has provided increased opportunity for the department of Hawaiian home lands to increase its reach. However, by conservative estimates, it will take the department at least another hundred years to meet the needs of its beneficiaries at current funding levels.”

It added: “The legislature additionally finds that, in the face of an unprecedented and historic budget shortfall as a result of the ongoing coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, the department of Hawaiian home lands must seek alternative means of revenue. 

“One alternative is the development of an integrated resort that includes limited casino gaming on Hawaiian home lands designated for commercial use on the island of Oahu, excluding lands west of Ko Olina in order to address the staggering budget shortfall this century through increased revenue for both beneficiaries and the department of Hawaiian home lands.”

Analysis: Hawaii’s appetite for gambling, like Utah’s, looks meagre to say the least. While policy makers appear desperate for the added revenue that gaming would bring to the table, the idea of introducing a resort casino seems about as popular as a skunk at a lawn party.

That the state has even considered it thus far is, however, an achievement in itself which probably says more about how desperate it is for regeneration and infrastructure funding than anything else.

And with five years to mull over the concept, before the cut and thrust of any real debate can even begin to be heard in the legislature, it’s safe to say that the pace of change is likely to be painfully slow. The lava flow from the ever-active Kilauea is likely to make swifter progress!