The Hawaiian Homes Commission (HHC) has approved a draft legislative plan to build the state’s first casino on Hawaiian Home Lands. The 5-4 vote would allow limited casino gambling in the form of single integrated resort property in Kapolei on O’ahu, and it is meant to generate revenue for Native Hawaiian programs.

The approval would see the construction of the venue on Hawaiian Home Lands property zoned for commercial use. However, there is a curvy path ahead as the HHC approval was the first step in what is expected to be a lengthy process. There are many who oppose bringing a casino to the Aloha State.

The commission authorized a draft bill with a narrow majority that will be sent to the legislature for consideration. The governor and state Attorney General’s Office will review the bill to determine if they support the measure. If not, the commission will require to seek legislative sponsors. Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL) Chair and Chairman of the HHC, William J. Aila Jr., was uncertain whether the available support in the senate and in the house would be enough to get it to pass. But he said, “we are never going to have the opportunity unless we move forward today.”

The plan surfaced last week, with DHHL saying it was facing a financial crisis due to the coronavirus and added that it requires to raise $6 billion to sufficiently serve more than 28,000 native Hawaiians who are depending on the agency for housing. However, the plan is mired with controversy as the support of gambling faces many opposing voices.

Gambling is the “Greatest Opportunity” For Economy

Deputy DHHL Chair, Tyler Lokepa Gomes, is among those who support the casino proposal for its economic potential. He said it would help the thousands of people on the waiting list for homes. He even considered the bill as the “single greatest opportunity” that Hawaiians have to put themselves in the dominion of exercising economic self-sufficiency. According to Gomes, the casino would earn nearly $30 million annually to help build homes for the roughly 29,000 Native Hawaiians on the waitlist.

Also, Gomes did not agree with those who claim gambling is inconsistent with the Aloha State’s culture, adding Hawaiians have always welcomed games of skills and chance.

The Measure Received Mixed Reaction

The proposal receives support from Commissioners Russel Kaupu, Michael Kaleikini, Dennis Neves, Pauline Namu’o, and Commission Chair William J. Aila. Before the vote, Aila said this is an opportunity to rescue ourselves as nobody will come to our rescue. The upcoming state legislature would require to amend the law to allow the project.

However, it seems not everyone was on board and four commissioners – David Kaaapu, Randy Awo, Zachary Hel, and Patricia Teruya – voted against the proposal. Awo said his major concern was the quick turnaround for considering the measure. He did not agree with Aila that it had to happen now or that the opportunity would be lost, adding “that’s the situation we are in.”

Long Odds Remain

Though gaining an HHC nod is the first step in the right direction, it is not certain whether a casino project will actually materialize in Hawaii.

The Aloha State is one of the two states, along with Utah, with no regulated gambling of any form. Hawaii does not have a lottery, reflecting the state’s long-held opposition to gambling in any form. Even if Gov. David Ige signs the bill, it will move on to the state legislature, where it is more likely to face opposition.

Last week, Sen. Mike Gabbard said a casino in Hawaii is a bad idea, adding that he would stand against such measure if it comes to the floor. Though Hawaii is led by Democrats, Gabbard claims the issue of preventing legalized gaming enjoys bipartisan support.

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