By NANCY COOK LAUER
Stephens Media Hawaii
Hawaii County Council members have a lot of suggestions for the state Legislature to consider when it meets in January, but allowing the counties to opt into high-stakes bingo won’t be one of them.
The council, meeting in Kona, voted 7-2 Wednesday to strike that resolution from a list approved to submit to the Hawaii State Association of Counties for presentation to the Legislature.
Council members rejecting the resolution that was submitted by Kohala Councilwoman Margaret Wille cited a likely increase in social ills and the need to protect islanders from gambling addictions as their main reasons.
“I don’t think it’s right for our county,” said Kona Councilman Dru Kanuha. “Maybe it’s not the right time. Maybe it’s never the right time.”
South Kona/Ka‘u Councilwoman Brenda Ford said studies have shown government ends up spending $3 overcoming crime, homelessness, addiction and other social ills for every $1 it makes in gambling revenue.
Hamakua Councilwoman Valerie Poindexter likened allowing gambling to inviting alcoholics to your home when you’re serving drinks.
“It’s like an addiction,” Poindexter said. “We’re dangling this carrot in front of these people.”
Council members favoring the resolution — Wille and Hilo Councilman Dennis Onishi — said the county needs to get creative on ways to raise money rather than resorting to tax increases.
Onishi said the measure is an “outside-the-box” idea to raise revenues.
“I don’t see any other outside-the-box ideas for how to raise our revenues,” Onishi said. “At least pass this and send it to the other counties and see if there is any other support.”
Wille said high-stakes bingo is different from casino gambling because it’s not a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week enterprise. The pots are much lower, Wille said, and the game takes place at a multipurpose center that is also used as a place to socialize. Bingo pots generally don’t go over $2,500, she said.
Wille said state House Speaker Joe Souki has indicated that creating a casino in Waikiki is among his legislative priorities. She characterized a measure allowing counties to decide if they want a pilot project on high-stakes bingo as a “firebreak” to help keep casino gambling at bay.
“This is not pro-gambling,” Wille said. “This is trying to seek a balance in what I see coming out of the Legislature.”
“It’s still gambling,” responded Puna Councilman Zendo Kern.
Seven other resolutions did pass muster and will be forwarded to HSAC for consideration by the other counties. Each county’s measures must be approved by the other three counties in order to be presented to the Legislature.
Two of the measures ask the Legislature to restore the counties’ share of the transient accommodations tax, which the state had taken and put into its own coffers during the economic downturn. The money comes from taxes on accommodations of less than 180 days and was originally intended to help government keep up with the increased burden tourists put on parks, roads, beaches, police, solid waste, water and other infrastructure.
The counties were supposed to divvy up 44.8 percent of the total, with the state keeping the rest. But the Legislature and Gov. Neil Abercrombie enacted legislation capping the counties’ share at $93 million, with Hawaii County getting 18.6 percent of that, or $17.3 million. That compares to $30.7 million Hawaii County would have gotten last year under the old scenario.
Council Chairman J Yoshimoto, of Hilo, said the county wouldn’t have had to raise property taxes had the state given it its full share of the TAT.
“There was a system in place working for years,” Yoshimoto said. “We represent the same constituency. The state Legislature should be cognizant of that fact.”
“Basically, fair is fair and right now, it’s not fair,” added Kern.
Other resolutions request $900,000 for PISCES, the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems, $38 million for the Daniel K. Inouye College of Pharmacy building and $2.8 million for a primary care training program at Hilo Medical Center.
In addition to money, the council also wants the Legislature to respect county authority and home rule in matters of agriculture and provide residents the opportunity to testify live at legislative hearings in both the House and Senate through videoconferencing.
The package of resolutions, once signed by the mayor, go to HSAC, which then compiles all of the counties’ resolutions and sends them to each county for approval. Any resolution not passed by all four councils is taken out of the package, said Onishi, who is HSAC vice president.
Email Nancy Cook Lauer at firstname.lastname@example.org.