Gambling opponents are still on a winning streak in Hawaii, where state lawmakers have again declined to move forward with any proposals that would legalize casinos, sports betting or lotteries in the islands.

Legislators either voted down those proposals in committees or did not schedule the measures in time to meet a key legislative deadline Thursday, when all bills being considered this session need to move to their final committees in the House and Senate.

Other measures that fell by the wayside included efforts to shield the state from being sued for Covid-19 infections and to crack down on State Auditor Les Kondo’s office.

The Legislature has considered gambling proposals for decades but none has succeeded. Hawaii and Utah are the only two states that prohibit all forms of gambling.

Offshore S4 Far From Home Vegas Holoholo Bar
Thousands of Hawaii residents fly to Las Vegas to gamble every year, but opponents don’t want to legalize betting in the islands. Kuʻu Kauanoe/Civil Beat/2020

Even the legislators introducing the bills acknowledged that they had little chance of advancing but said it was important to keep the debate alive.

House Vice Speaker John Mizuno is a gambling proponent. But he said lawmakers are less likely to touch controversial issues since this is an election year. He also doesn’t see the political will to move those bills, especially with a budget surplus.

“The majority of people in the Legislature do not feel gambling is the way to help Hawaii go forward,” Mizuno said.

Opponents remain concerned that the downsides such as possible increases in crime or addiction would outweigh the expected revenue windfall for the state. Although thousands of Hawaii residents fly to Las Vegas to gamble every year, Eva Andrade, CEO of the faith-based Hawaii Family Forum, doesn’t want to see increased access here at home.

“Now it would all be brought to the front door: all the ill effects that come with gambling would be made available to more people. We don’t see that as a positive thing,” Andrade said.

Others find ways to play in the islands, including illegal game rooms and cock fights.

Many of the gambling proposals put forward this year, like House Bill 1820, which sought to build a casino in Waikiki, died without a hearing.

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Two measures sought to conduct an analysis of the costs and benefits of gambling in Hawaii, specifically for a casino or sports betting operation on Hawaiian homelands.

Senate Bill 2608 and House Bill 1962 would give the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands $500,000 to conduct a gaming study. The House measure never got a hearing. SB 2608 failed in a Senate Hawaiian Affairs Committee hearing Feb. 8 on a 2-3 vote.

Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, the committee chairwoman, recommended changing the bill to have DHHL study sports betting or a lottery instead. Sens. Kurt Fevella, Laura Acasio and Les Ihara struck down the proposal.

Fevella, who has opposed gaming on DHHL lands in the past, said in an interview Thursday that he feels any study on gambling should be done statewide, not just on DHHL land. He said the department has plenty of money this year, noting a proposal to provide it with $600 million to develop more affordable housing.

Fevella also worries about negative side effects from gambling, and how the state would cope.

“I don’t think Hawaii’s ready for that,” he said, adding that if the state does move forward with gambling, it should start small and look at a lottery or bingo instead.

DHHL sign
Lawmakers declined to move forward with a proposal that would allow DHHL to conduct a study of gambling on its lands. DHHL

But even a proposal to create a state-run lottery to fund public education, which had gained some traction last year, failed to advance despite past polls showing a majority of registered voters in Hawaii support the idea.

Senate Bill 2310 would have set up a lottery system, proceeds from which would fund projects to eradicate invasive species. Meanwhile, Senate Bill 2365 would put state lottery revenues toward funding public school improvements, increasing teacher salaries and cooling classrooms.

Neither measure got a hearing in the Senate.

Measures to legalize online sports betting — House Bill 1815 and House Bill 1973 — also never got a committee hearing.

The House Economic Development Committee held a hearing earlier this month on House Bill 2004, which would have allowed fantasy sports websites like Draft Kings or FanDuel to operate in Hawaii. Rep. Sean Quinlan killed the measure but said he plans to work on a similar proposal during the interim.

Senate Bill 3028, a companion measure to HB 2004, never got a hearing.

Here’s What Else Is Dead At The Legislature

In numerous hearings last year, Kondo, the state auditor, sparred with an investigative committee led by House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti. The committee was formed to dig into audits performed on a special land and development fund in the Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Agribusiness Development Corp. The committee spent much of its time scrutinizing Kondo’s office instead.

As a result of the hearings, Belatti introduced two measures, House Bill 2419 and 2420, which sought to disclose the auditor’s confidential work papers and to set up addditional requirements for how the auditor’s office reviews draft reports.

Rep. Angus McKelvey, chairman of the House Government Reform Committee, killed both measures on Wednesday.

“Basically, we don’t feel the support is there to move these measures along at this time,” McKelvey said.

McKelvey also deferred a measure that would exempt lawmakers from a state ethics rule prohibiting acceptance of food and other gifts from lobbyists. Lawmakers tried to advance similar measures last year after the state Ethics Commission banned them from accepting the “gifts of aloha.”

A separate measure introduced by Gov. David Ige’s administration that would have shielded the state from liability over actions it did or didn’t take in response to the pandemic also died. Opponents saw Senate Bill 3047 as an attempt to block lawsuits stemming from Covid outbreaks in Hawaii’s prisons and jails.

The bill never got a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. Sen. Karl Rhoads, chairman of that committee, previously said he wasn’t inclined to hear it.

Another measure that sought to make it easier for out-of-state dentists to get licensed in Hawaii is also dead for the session. House Bill 1498 never got a hearing.

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