I am pleased to report that the land and water bills discussed in my last report have most likely died. While possible, it is unlikely that last minute magic to save either of these controversial bills will happen.
The proposal to place industrial solar panels on our best quality agricultural lands failed to pass out of the Ways and Means Committee. Previous to that scheduled vote, the developer publicly stated it would yield to public opposition and now seek approval for their solar farm on B grade or lesser quality lands. This was a critical test of whether or not A grade farms lands would be protected for agriculture or be sacrificed to higher profit enterprises. I am happy to have helped rally opposition to this proposal through media interviews and opinion pieces in print and on the radio.
The water bill died a spectacular death when one committee voted to amend and a second committee immediately blocked a vote. Since the two committees did not agree on the form of the bill, it failed to pass. This unexpected, public disagreement is extremely uncommon.
What makes the failure of the water bill news worthy is that the two committee chairs disagreed on whether or not to include protection for Alexander and Baldwin’s continued diversion of east Maui water. Rarely does a powerful corporation such as A&B fail to get its way at the legislature. Senator Kai Kahele’s Water and Land Committee voted to amend the bill to extend protections for water permit holders, provided they are not barred by a court order. Senator Donovan Dela Cruz did not allow the Ways and Means Committee to vote on the amendment, although it likely would have passed.
A&B’s “temporary” water permits, which had been automatically renewed for 13 years, were voided by court order in January 2016. A&B then ginned up fear that all water permits are in jeopardy from this ruling and they drew certain small farmers and ranchers into the controversy. The court ruling was circumvented by special legislation to continue temporary water permits for three years while long term leases are processed. Three years on, no long term leases have been granted.
This year’s bill sought another seven-year extension, a time frame that would have guaranteed A&B a $62 million savings according to the terms of their recent land sale. After A&B put out a press release denying that the legislation was for their benefit, Chair Kahele amended the bill to exclude them.
I have been the most vocal opponent of the 2016 law and this year’s bill because they were never necessary. Nobody but A&B is subject to the court ruling, so nobody else is under any real threat of having their water supply terminated. The state should be able to allow the water use while it processes long term lease applications. Finally, A&B’s successors to the land have enough existing water resources to advance their plans while they pursue a long term lease.
I applaud Senator Kahele for wisely carving out A&B from his proposed legislation. This clarifies whether legislators support the small farmers and ranchers needlessly held hostage in this controversy, or A&B. It seems that vote will not happen this year.