Democratic Party of Hawaii

Water Protectors

When I take on a new issue, a new cause… or even when I return to an old cause resurfaced, I often come away having learned something new. In some cases, I’m reminded of things I’ve learned before. So too is this the case in the recent and ongoing battle over Hawaii’s water, a public trust.

First Truth: Never Doubt the Corrupt Nature of Politics (And Some Politicians)

The most recent chapter in this story, saw one of the remaining “Big Five” challenged. With money lining the pockets of their political puppets, Alexander & Baldwin thought their interest secure in the passage of HB1326. So confident were they in their final success that they didn’t even bother to join the parade of testifiers on the bill. Instead, they lurked in the shadows and crowded corners, letting others stand in the spotlight facing legislative committees.

Victory, all but assured, was only cast in doubt by a small cadre of dedicated, ordinary citizens. But I’ll come back to this shortly.

In the disinfecting light cast by the Chair of the Senate’s Water and Land Committee, A&B began to feel their favored legislation slipping through their fingers. And so as they had huddled behind doors to dark rooms, so too did they drag “the water bill” with them. A favored puppet, responding to tugged strings, drove a knife through an otherwise open and public process.

They would look for other ways to get the water they so wanted. So machinations began to wrest control of HB1326 from the interfering hands of the Water & Land Chair to the Senate Floor, where puppets would be lined up, strings pulled to do A&B’s bidding.

In a saga that started in 2016, though it could easily be argued it began far earlier, we have seen time and again how those who want power are attracted to those who have it. Like gravity or magnetism, power is an attractive force that also has the power to destroy. Lesser forces like, truth, justice, and compassion are of little consequence when compared to power.

And though this will always be the case, I am nonetheless astonished at how often I need reminding.

Lesson Two: Never Doubt That a Small Group of Thoughtful, Committed Citizens Can Change the World…

… Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.

Much like in 2016, I came late to the water fight this year. With HB1326 waiting for a hearing in the Senate and fearing the worst, I did what I could to lend support to those who have been on the front line from the beginning.

The tenacity, compassion, and humor with which they were waging a seemingly un-winnable war was… is inspiring. People from every walk of life and from every corner of the islands came together to take on Goliath. While there were experienced political actors among them and some did more directing and strategizing than others, the group was a school of fish, all moving together toward a common goal.

Egos were checked at the door. Everyone played a role and did their part.

Perhaps even more inspiring than a couple of awe-inspired wins, what truly fills my heart is how these people came together to win. And this might be, when I’m really honest with myself, why I love what I do.

Sure, the political intrigue and strategizing is fun for me. As a card-carrying introvert, my brain focuses more on that part than the people of politics. Still, it’s the people I am so lucky to work with that really make smile. The hui of people who have dedicated their time, passion, and money to the defeat of HB1326 is a sight to see.

My Own Truth

Those who know me well would likely describe me as a skeptic. A realist curmudgeon who sees doom and gloom. And mostly they’re probably right. I think about the work everyone has done on this issue. I think the faith with which they approached the daunting task. I think about the camaraderie in victory and set-back alike and I am filled up.

That is why I do what I do. That is why I can’t think of doing anything else. And that is the real power in politics: friendships and family, solidarity and caring. When people stand up to do what’s right, there are no odds that can’t be beaten.

I remain skeptical we’ve seen the last of “the water bill.” Power as a force will always remain. So too will remain that group of thoughtful, committed citizens. That is our cause for hope.

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Senator Kai Kahele holds A&B executive Vice President Meredith Ching to the fire.

In my capacity as the Legislation Committee Co-Chair for the Democratic Party of Hawaii, I urged the State Central Committee to support efforts to oppose HB1326 in all its potential forms. I urge you to do the same. Call, email your State Senators and tell them to oppose all efforts to pass the bill.

Where The Power Lies

Lobbyists and savvy activists alike will tell you it’s a lot easier to kill a bill than to pass a bill. You can look at the history of any number of issues to see this is true. Emergency room contraception took something like 20 years to pass. The same is true for marriage equality, aid in dying, and likely too many others to name here.

The structure and machinations of the Legislature are arguably designed with this intent in mind. It could be argued this is a good thing from a thoughtful, neutral perspective. But in practice what it often means, at least here in Hawaii, is good legislation that benefits the public dies quiet deaths in the shadows of committee dockets. Running parallel are bad bills that either does little to benefit the public good or are outright corporate giveaways and such.

And so it is the case with the (in)famous “water bill”. Environmentalists, economic justice advocates, Native Hawaiians, and progressive activists (hereafter referred to collectively as “the champions”) have been united in their vile hatred of this bill. After weeks and months of hard fought battles, they finally breathed a sigh of relief and gasped a celebratory cheer this past Thursday. HB1326 HD2 appeared to have finally been disposed of. But evil has a way of fighting its way back.

What The Hell is This All About?

To better understand the “water bill” and why the issue has so many good and otherwise gentle people wanting to pull their hair out and scream, some background information is necessary.

For a long, long time (think decades, at least) the big and powerful landowner Alexander and Baldwin (A&B) has been diverting obscene and hard-to-imagine (let alone quantify) amounts of water from public streams. In order to take public water, the law requires that one must receive a permit from the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). In lieu of these long-term leases, one can apply for a short-term Revokable Permit which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. These Revokable Permits are meant to be limited and temporary permits. They allow entities to take water while they take the necessary steps to apply for and receive a long-term permit.

Well, for decades both DLNR and A&B have been in cahoots to side-step or, more accurately, completely and utterly ignore the law which requires long-term leases. For far too many years, A&B has failed to apply for a long-term lease and DNLR has refused to require them to do so. Though communities around Hawaii had tried for a long time to make this happen, A&B’s money and influence had protected them. Until….

A lawsuit brought by community members and organizations and argued by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation and Earth Justice led, in 2016, to a Circuit Court ruling which said A&B’s Revokable Permits are invalid. They would need to go through the long-term permit application process if they wanted to regain access to water from public streams.

In a panic and eager to return to business as usual, A&B called their friends at the State Legislature to remedy the situation.

House Bill 2501

In 2016, we saw the first “water bill” move through the Legislature. HB2501 extended A&B’s ability to operate under short-term Revokable Permits for three more years while they worked to acquire long-term permits. As we are seeing this year, back in 2016, the champions went nuts. They had been given a victory by the courts only to see their elected officials, once again, being called to heel at the foot of A&B. Despite overwhelming opposition from the community, HB2501 was signed into law by Governor Ige as ACT 126.

The bill was sold as necessary to protect the “small farmers and ranchers” who would be devastated by a lack of protection from losing their own Revokable Permits. Never mind the fact they were never in jeopardy, A&B and their loyal subjects paraded out these hapless bystanders as the real victims; shields protecting A&B from the spotlight. The champions were assured; “this is a one-off measure to give A&B and the DLNR three years to put their houses in order.” And so… we waited. Hoping against hope that the powerful A&B and their lapdogs, DLNR and the Legislature, would hold to their word.

Set to expire at the end of 2019, ACT 126 gave these bad actors three years to sort their shit out. But alas, we know now how this story was intended to play out. It would seem no one really intended to follow the law and A&B continues to divert water from public streams with impunity.

In The Meantime….

In late 2018, A&B sold more than 40,000 acres of agricultural land to the entity Mahi Pono for $262 million. The new landowner has been making the rounds on Maui. They’re confidently telling residents and activists that they intend to cultivate the land to the benefit of Hawaii. Only time will tell and their involvement in the “water bill” fight has been mostly behind the scenes. They certainly don’t appear to be operating thus far for Hawaii’s benefits.

House Bill 1326: The Lie Laid Bare

How can we really know the true intent of (at least some) legislators? Simple. HB1326, as originally introduced by Representative Ryan Yamane, extended the sunset of ACT 126 indefinitely, essentially codifying permanently into Hawaii law A&B’s ability to take water with no oversight, no accountability, and no regret.

As a “concession” the Hawaii House of Representatives amended HB1326 from an unlimited extension down to a mere seven years. Some may see this as a sign of compromise and reasonable intent from the House. The champions see it for what it is; a green light for A&B and DLNR to continue to shirk the law for nearly another decade.

Through the course of this fight, the champions began looking at the land sale contract between Mahi Pono and A&B. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a provision was included in the contract that stipulates A&B will owe Mahi Pono $62 million if A&B cannot secure “access for collection and transmission of surface water from state-owned lands in East Maui”.

Incensed and betrayed, the champions sounded the call to action. By the time HB1326 made its way to the Hawaii Senate, the fix was in; House leaders wanted the bill passed quickly and unamended. They wanted the Governor’s signature on the measure ASAP and were prepared for a fast veto override vote before the end of the 2019 Regular Session.

The Senate, taking a sobering approach to the task at hand, held the bill for a time before scheduling a hearing before a joint Committees on Water Land and Ways and Means.

Senator Kai Kahele, Chair of the Water Land Committee proposed a reasonable compromise: a seven-year extension for those honorable “small farmers and ranchers,” but excluding A&B entirely. After a six-hour public hearing, members of the Water Land Committee voted 3-2 to support Senator Kahele’s Proposed SD1. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Senators on the Ways and Means Committee, led by their Chair Donovan Dela Cruz, deferred indefinitely the bill. And so it died in committee.

Or so thought the champions….

Corporate Influence in The Square Building Knows No Bounds

Within mere hours of HB1326’s death in committee, rumors and rumblings began spreading about efforts to pull the bill from the Committees’ grasp and out to the Senate Floor where the full body would take action on the House version. House and Senate Leadership, showing where their true allegiances lay, are moving to protect A&B from the law once again.

And so here we are today. Our elected officials, loyalty-bound not to their oaths, their constituents, or their conscience, but to their corporate masters are showing their true colors.

The champions have sounded the call. So too am I writing this for their benefit, and the benefit of Hawaii.

Call your State Senator. Tell them to stand with the people of Hawaii. To stand with the champions who fight tirelessly to what’s right. Call and tell them to cast off the shackles that bind them to their corporate masters. Remind them of their oaths to protect and defend the Hawaii State Constitution. Remind them they serve the voters who elected them to serve.

Politics is too often a dirty and bloody game. In my own time, I’ve seen too much bad shit and not enough good. I will be outraged if this bill becomes law. But I will always be humbled and honored to have been able to work with the magnificent champions who have been fighting for justice on this issue for years. Join us.

 

Featured Image by Lauryn Rego @ Cartoon Court Report 2019 – Thanks Lauryn!
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