Much has been written about Senate Bill No. 755, SD 2, HD 2, a bill exempting certain state projects from environmental review.

Much also has been misrepresented or misunderstood about SB 755.

The intent of SB 755 is to promote economic recovery by accelerating the construction of state projects under a balanced approach.

A substantial amount of appropriations for state projects have not yet lapsed. There is $2.4 billion in general obligation bonds authorized, but unissued, according to the latest information. I feel that authorized state projects should be accelerated since they already have appropriations. To me, this is the preferable approach, rather than adding more appropriations for new state projects, which will increase the long-term debt burden on taxpayers.

Summary of SB 755

SB 755 provides temporary limited exemptions for state projects from the special management area regulations and environmental review process. SB 755 does not include a blanket exemption for all state projects. Nor does SB 755 authorize exemptions for county projects or private projects.

SB 755 also does not exempt state projects from the National Environmental Policy Act, clean water and clean air laws, historic preservation laws, or endangered species laws. House Standing Committee Report No. 1683 on SB 755 includes a comprehensive list of the laws that would still apply to state projects.

Temporary Environmental Review Exemption Authority

The most controversial part of SB 755 temporarily authorizes the Governor to exempt certain state projects from the environmental review process. To exempt a state project, the Governor must find that the state project will “probably have minimal or no significant environmental effects on the environment”. In other words, under SB 755, the Governor cannot exempt state projects that probably will have significant environmental effects.

Under existing law, the Environmental Council has the authority to establish procedures for exempting the same types of projects.

The following is a side-by-side comparison of the relevant language in SB 755 and existing law.

I emphasize that the language in SB 755 for the Governor is the same as in current law for the Environmental Council.

Consequently, the protestations by opponents seem overblown. SB 755 does not authorize the Governor to confer a blanket exemption for all state projects from the environmental review process. I do not believe that the Governor would act less responsibly than the Environmental Council.

Types Of State Projects That Are Candidates For Exemption

What state projects would be candidates for the exemption?

SB 755 does not authorize, and I do not support, an exemption for state projects that clearly may have significant effects on the environment. To me, examples of state projects that should not be exempt include, but are not limited to, the construction of a new high school campus, community college campus, public safety complex, regional park, or highway. Moreover, any new state airport or harbor obviously should not be exempt (although none are anticipated to be constructed in the near future). Such state projects, at the least, should be subject to an environmental assessment.

Other types of state projects should be candidates for the exemption, especially if they are to be constructed within the footprint of an existing state facility.

The following is a list of state projects gleaned from the past two years of The Environmental Notice, the Office of Environmental Quality Control’s weekly publication. In my subjective judgment, these are the types of state projects that may qualify for an exemption.

As stated previously, the list is based on my subjective judgment.

I invite everyone to review on their own the state projects in the past Environmental Notices. I am confident that a reasonable person will logically conclude that some of the state projects would not have needed an environmental assessment.

House Strategy

Economic recovery and job growth in Hawaii are priorities of the House. Public resources, however, are unavailable for new or expanded business tax credits or employment programs.

Given this constraint, what may the Legislature do to maintain the economic recovery and job growth?

As a response, I repeat what I submitted to Civil Beat before the session:

My view is that the Legislature must be creative and willing to make difficult choices, some of which may be vehemently opposed by segments of the community. The Legislature must seek ways to expedite the construction of public infrastructure projects, so that money is quickly expended in the community. It is not sufficient to merely tout the “appropriations” for projects if actual “expenditures” do not quickly follow.

SB 755 is one of these choices.

About the author: Representative Calvin K.Y. Say currently serves as the Speaker of the Hawaii State House of Representatives.