Hawaii won’t see any casinos or a lottery any time soon.

Attempts to control watchdog agencies have fallen by the wayside, but government transparency measures seem to be moving ahead.

And while lawmakers appear ready to enact some criminal justice reform bills, a key state commission charged with overseeing Hawaii’s overcrowded prisons and jails won’t get any funding.

As the Legislature heads to a deadline Thursday for all bills to clear their originating chamber, scores of measures have already been killed or failed to gain traction. That includes a handful of measures proposing police reforms.

Hawaiian flags on the lawn on opening day of the Legislature at the Capitol.
Hawaii lawmakers have pared down their proposals as the Legislature reaches its halfway point for the 2021 session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Some ideas that have died were likely not going to get much support (legalizing magic mushrooms, penalizing the feeding of feral chickens). Others raised questions about equity for workers, like pay differences between CEOs and employees.

But many measures, including those that are a priority for lawmakers, are still alive and will advance through the Legislature, which is expected to conclude its business in late April. Lawmakers introduced more than 2,800 bills in January, but only about 10% of those will make it to the governor’s desk by the end of session.

It’s a far cry from 2020 when, about this time last year, lawmakers were packing up and heading home for an extended recess due to the pandemic.

“A lot of the attention has shifted back to bills to reopen the economy and ensure safety for people in the pandemic,” House Vice Speaker John Mizuno said.

Senate proposals on housing, energy and elections all appear to be moving forward. The House is also advancing measures to clamp down on the governor’s emergency powers, implement uniform pandemic travel rules for all the islands and mediate rental agreements between landlords and tenants.

No More Gifts Of Aloha

Lawmakers also tried to advance measures that would allow them to accept gifts of nominal value like food items. That practice was generally banned under new rules from the state Ethics Commission.

Some state lawmakers introduced bills challenging those rules, arguing that it also banned some constituents from giving them “gifts of aloha” — like manapua, musubi and other treats. Other proposals would have allowed lobbyists and their clients to give lawmakers food and other items worth less than $25.

Most of those measures never got a hearing this session. The one that did, House Bill 645, would have allowed lawmakers to accept food items from non-lobbyists at meetings, presentations and “goodwill events.”

The House Government Reform Committee deferred the bill Feb. 10.

Gambling, Lottery Not In The Cards This Session

Measures to legalize casino gaming and other forms of gambling drew much attention and criticism at the start of session. Lawmakers consider gaming measures every year, but this time casino proposals were being pushed by the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands as a way to get needed tax revenue to build homes for Native Hawaiians.

There were proposals to allow a casino in Kapolei, to let the Hawaiian Homes Commission determine what form of gaming should be created, and others to allow a single casino in Waikiki. Lawmakers also advanced a proposal for a lottery to fund public schools.

Gambling measures, including proposals to allow one casino in Kapolei or Waikiki, have all died for the session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

All of those measures have since died.

House Vice Speaker John Mizuno has been a proponent of gambling measures. He hopes that one day lawmakers will overcome their reluctance to advance those bills, as has been the case with medical marijuana and same-sex marriage.

He said the fact that lawmakers were willing to give some of the casino measures a hearing is a good first step.

“I’m a realist, there are social ills connected to gaming,” Mizuno said in a phone interview Thursday. He added that benefits also should be considered, like funding for housing.

Ray Cho, a researcher a the Center for Gambling Studies at the Rutgers School of Social Work, said Hawaii must start collecting more data if it is to accurately evaluate gambling. Data like the rate of problem gambling in the state, who is affected and in what geographic communities, should all be considered.

Cho compares it to surveillance testing for COVID-19.

“You localize where outbreaks are happening, and with better screening and tracking infection rates, we can isolate, address and determine where we need to mobilize resources,” Cho said.

It’s an apt comparison. For Cho, gambling should be looked at as a public health issue, and not just a moral debate.

And while there are plenty of models for policymakers to consider — 48 other states already allow some form of gambling — finding the right one for Hawaii might be tricky. There’s evidence that regulatory systems for gaming don’t work perfectly everywhere.

“Hawaii doesn’t have to do gaming in any way it’s been done before,” Cho said.

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