To save the economy, you don’t have to destroy the environment.

Or the host culture, either.

That, in a rough nutshell, summarizes the arguments of environmentalists, clean energy advocates, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, a few lawmakers and others who vehemently oppose Senate Bill 755 — a measure that gives the governor and county mayors latitude in exempting state and county projects from regulatory review.

SB 755, which will have a hearing Thursday morning before — ironically — the two House committees whose kuleana is water, land, energy, environment and the ocean, is described by its supporters as key to stimulating construction and job growth.

Those supporters include majority Democrats, the Abercrombie administration, builders, contractors and laborers. SB 755 is necessary to streamline and expedite the development process, they say.

If passed, SB 755 will help pave the way for the biggest legislative priority of Gov. Neil Abercrombie and both chambers of the Hawaii Legislature: to promote economic revitalization by way of capital expenditures on public infrastructure projects.

The projects are detailed in Senate Bill 2012, aka “The Invest in Hawaii Act,” which calls for a $500 million bond transaction. The state’s $11.1 billion supplemental budget, contained in House Bill 2012, funds plenty of CIPs. Those include things like school repairs, road maintenance and public buildings.

HB 2012 and SB 2012 each await hearings in, respectively, Senate Ways and Means and House Finance.

It’s no coincidence that both bills contain 2012 in the title. Democrats would love nothing more than be able to tout that accomplishment in this fall’s elections, when all 76 House and Senate seats are up for grabs.

But to do so, critics of SB 755 argue, legislators are going about it in very ugly way: by ramming through a grossly amended bill that gives the public little opportunity to voice their concerns.

Proponents see it differently.

The CIPs are vital, they say. It’s about jobs.

What the Bill Does

SB 755 is all about exemptions, exemptions and exemptions. Among other things, it would do the following:

• exempt specified state projects from Chapter 343 — the environmental impact statement law — requirements and environmental oversight;

• streamline the process for exempting state and county projects from the EIS law until 2015;

• reduce the deadline for challenging the lack of an environmental assessment for a state project;

• make the governor’s Office of Planning responsible for issuance of special management area permits (SMAP) and shoreline setback variances for state projects until 2015;

• exempt the requirement that the Office of Planning hold public hearings on projects;

• automatically approve a variance if the Office of Planning does not act on a variance request within 20 days after receiving the request;

• exempt Department of Transportation and Department of Land and Natural Resources projects from SMAP and shoreline setback variance requirements until 2015;

• exempt state projects from county general plans and zoning;

• exempt all work in a state commercial harbor from any permitting and site plan approval requirements for submerged lands in conservation districts;

• exempt projects approved by the governor from approval by the Environmental Council or compliance with rules of the Office of Environmental Quality Control;

• require that only the Circuit Court can impose any civil fine or other penalty for a state project;

At Wednesday’s hearing on SB 755, Gary Hooser, director of the state’s Office of Environmental Control, objected to language in the bill that would shorten the window for judicial review of a project to 60 days.

“The public has no way to know if an exemption has been declared,” he said. “So there is no way to know to challenge it.”

Cut and Paste

To its critics, SB 755 was done hastily and largely behind closed doors.

It began as a bill on a general excise tax exemption for retail sales, morphed into a bill on peer-to-peer poker tournaments and eventually transformed, dramatically, into its current version.

Gutting and replacing a bill is not out of the ordinary for the Hawaii Legislature. All that is necessary is legislative will and a bill title — in this case, “relating to economic development.”

But SB 755, which contains language from no less than five other bills, is a true piece of work. The Sierra Club calls SB 755 “unethical,” “shenanigans” and “an egregious abrogation of the House’s duties.”

Other measures introduced this session had similar aims as SB 755, and opponents turned out in force to stop many of them. But one of those opponents, Donna Wong of Hawaii’s 1,000 Friends, says SB 755 contains “much of the worst language” from the failed set of bills she called “the Dirty Dozen.”

Testifying on SB 755 Wednesday afternoon, Henry Curtis of Life of the Land said, “I think we are trying to set a record this year on the amount of bad legislation that can be passed by one committee, and we hope that you will at least kill this one.”

Rep. Sharon Har, vice chair of House Water, Land and Ocean Resources, who conducted the hearing, didn’t seem inclined to kill SB 755, however.

Har described the “numerous” pieces of opposition testimony as “boilerplate.” She seemed more sympathetic to testimony from Mike Kido of the Hawaii Carpenters Union, who reminded lawmakers that there were 2,000 unemployed carpenters in the state.

Jocelyn Doane of OHA warned lawmakers that SB 755 could harm Native Hawaiians at a time when the culture and population were, in her words, starting to “bloom again.”

“There are a plethora of exemptions to silence our community and put Native Hawaiians at risk,” she said, comparing the consequences of SB 755 to the displacement of Hawaiian families from their ancestral lands during the economic explosion that followed statehood.

But Shannon Alivado of the General Contractors Association responded by stating that the bill’s purpose was most clearly understood by the words “economic development” in its title.

“We are sensitive to concerns from OHA, but this is a temporary law exempting certain statues that are in fact delaying projects,” she said.

Some, like Robert Harris of the Sierra Club, doubted whether projects were really being delayed.

Attorney Leslie Cole-Brooks, meantime, said the potential downside of SB 755 was too great.

“I would like to challenge the idea that economic development is impacted by environmental protections — quite the opposite,” she said. “It is environmental harm that is what is costly and may not be repaired. This is an extreme use of executive powers.”

Expedited Hearing

In a sign of how fast the House is pushing SB 755, Wednesday’s hearing was hastily arranged for 11:15 a.m., just 45 minutes before House floor session was scheduled to begin.

Two other bills were heard first, pushing the clock to 11:46 a.m.

Less than 20 minutes later, at 12:03 p.m., however, Rep. Har said the hearing on SB 755 would have to continue Thursday morning with a vote on it to follow.

At that point, Rep. Cynthia Thielen, a Republican and persistent critic of bills like SB 755, had had enough. She told Har the committees should just table the bill for good.

“This is an environmental destruction measure,” she said, color filling her complexion. “This is not the way this legilsative body should operate. It’s not right. This is the wrong way to do this.”

“Thank you, so noted,” said Har, tersely, saying there had previously been adequate hearing on several parts of the bill. “This is a second bite of the apple.”

Har then gaveled the hearing to a close.

“Disgraceful,” said Thielen.

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