Lawmakers are looking for guidance from the Abercrombie administration on controversial environmental legislation, but top officials are giving very mixed signals.

At issue is Senate Bill 755, which would grant the governor authority to waive regulatory review of state projects.

Supporters say SB 755 is pro-jobs. Opponents counter that it is anti-aina. The measure awaits a hearing by House Finance, the last hurdle before a final vote on the House floor.

At minimum, SB 755 represents a major loophole to Chapter 343, Hawaii’s environmental review law. The decades-old statute has been a central issue in multiple legal disputes, from water use cases dating back decades to recent issues like the Hawaii Superferry.

Where does the administration of Gov. Neil Abercrombie stand on waiving this fundamental law in order to expedite state construction projects?

On both sides of the issue, apparently — or neither.

The administration has taken clear positions on such issues as the proposal to give $200 million in Kakaako land to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and on the need for an undersea cable. The governor himself has testified repeatedly on both.

But on the measure that may be the most controversial this session, it’s impossible to pin down where it stands, something that is highly unusual in the legislative process. Typically an administration speaks with one voice.

In this case, it’s almost as if the administration doesn’t want to be seen as having anything to do with a bill that would give it remarkable power.

No Directive From Governor

The disparate viewpoints from the administration were the cause of a briefing Thursday held by the House Hawaiian Affairs Committee. The committee called his executives because it wanted to know “whether or not the Abercrombie Administration supports these exemptions.”

At the briefing, Abercrombie’s transportation director, Glenn Okimoto, said he supports the measure because it would “streamline the process and get projects out to bid and construction.” He added that, even though it exempts projects from state environmental review, federal review would still apply.

One would think that means that the bill has the administration’s blessing; Abercrombie is Okimoto’s boss, after all.

But, at Thursday’s briefing, Attorney General David Louie said, “I am not aware that there is an official administration position on this.”

Gary Hooser, director of the Office of Environmental Quality Control, strongly opposed the environmental exemptions. He said they are “unnecessary” — there is no backlog of agency requests for projects — and would cause “irreversible damage.”

Hooser said the exemptions would also likely limit the amount of public input on development projects, something Hawaii’s environmental review law expressively provides for. As a former state senator representing Kauai, he expressed worry that the exemptions were yet another example of a Honolulu-centric government making dramatic decisions that affect the neighbor islands.

Then came Jesse Souki, director of the state Office of Planning.

He testified in strong opposition to the bill — but mainly because he says his office can’t handle the responsibilities that SB 755’s passage would place on it. Souki said he does support “streamlining efforts,” however.

William Aila, director of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, has submitted testimony in support of the intent of part of the bill.

Asked Thursday by Rep. Scott Saiki what the administration’s position is on SB 755, Aila said, “There is no standard position on this bill. There is no general position.”

Saiki asked if Aila had been given any direction from the governor.

“I have not been given specific direction,” Aila replied.

Several times during the briefing, DOT’s Okimoto also seemed to put distance between the administration and SB 755.

“This isn’t our bill,” he said more than once.

Moving Target

SB 755 is a moving target, a bill that has twice been gutted and replaced and is currently on its second House draft.

As currently drafted, for example, the bill has language that seeks to mitigate the Office of Planning’s concerns.

As the governor told Civil Beat Wednesday, he won’t make a determination on the bill until it has been finalized. Still, Abercrombie made it clear he didn’t think much of critics, accusing them of making “apocalyptic” statements about the bill.

Some lawmakers — many of them House dissidents who oppose Speaker Calvin Say — kept pushing for administrative guidance.

Rep. Della Au Belatti asked AG Louie about a provision in the bill that may make it difficult for citizens to sue the state over the exemptions.

But Louie said he hadn’t actually reviewed the bill and so couldn’t comment.

“I apologize,” he told Belatti.

“That’s fair,” she replied, before urging Louie to look at the specific language and get back to her. She warned of “huge, wholesale changes to our system of environmental enforcements.”

Rep. Sylvia Luke also pushed Louie for legal guidance.

“Generally speaking, do you think it is good public policy to have a broad exemption with issues going through the Legislature?” Luke asked.

Louie replied, “It is within the purview of the Legislature to exempt certain projects from certain laws.”

That prompted Belatti to say, “I am grateful that the attorney general thinks it’s our purview, but we need to know the governor’s take on this because it is, obviously, potentially changing (the law) drastically and the administration has yet to have a singular voice.”

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