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Legislature approves major land deal at Turtle Bay


HONOLULU — Hawaii lawmakers approved a historic land-preservation deal Thursday after a last-minute debate on the final day of the 2014 legislative session.

House members voted to approve $40 million in bonds to pay for the deal brokered in part by Gov. Neil Abercrombie. The proposal, already approved by the Senate, would preserve indefinitely more than 660 acres of land at Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu.

Lawmakers in the House had been concerned because the deal was announced late in the session, so the proposal did not get a public hearing. Abercrombie and other supporters announced the agreement last week and then lawmakers had less than a week to adjust the budget to commit the funds.

“I’m delighted,” the governor said in an interview. “When they see that the country stays country, that access is there for everyone, when they see that the pristine coastlines will be secure from unwanted development, that’s when the genuine recognition that what has been promised is being fulfilled will take on a reality.”

The CEO of Turtle Bay Resort also cheered the passage.

“Like everyone on the North Shore, we are thrilled that the funding of this historic agreement has been approved,” Drew Stotesbury said in a statement.

After spending about half an hour behind closed doors to determine whether they had enough votes, House members then ground through another hour on the chamber floor, bemoaning the loathsome task of voting on a proposal that was dramatically changed so late in the session. But most were resigned that the preservation deal was important enough to approve despite the hasty nature of the lawmaking.

“The work that we do is not something simply for purists,” said Rep. Della Au Bellati, adding that members of the North Shore community participated in the meetings to craft the deal. “We have done our due diligence. We have listened to the community.”

Rep. Richard Lee Fale said there needs to be better communication between the Legislature and the governor.

But others said the deal is an opportunity that must be seized.

“This is not just about saving it for the North Shore community,” Rep. Jo Jordan said. “The people in the concrete jungle want to get out to our open spaces.”

The debate was a tense part of an otherwise jovial day in which lawmakers wearing fragrant lei shook hands in congratulations for the bills that passed. Rep. Kaniela Ing strummed an ukulele as he walked to his seat, celebrating the musical marvel that did not become the state instrument.

“I’m a graduate of the legislative process, so I’m familiar with how issues can sometimes be conflated with internal difficulties that the Legislature might be facing,” Abercrombie said after the Turtle Bay vote. “My idea with any piece of legislation is to keep your eye on the prize, and not on the process.”

Over the course of the session, the Legislature also approved proposals to raise the minimum wage for the first time in seven years and to make kindergarten mandatory for 5-year-olds.

Abercrombie signed the kindergarten bill into law Thursday afternoon in a ceremony with fellow bill supporters. It will take effect in the upcoming school year.

“We want to make sure that every single child … has that foundation in kindergarten,” said Sen. Jill Tokuda, majority whip.

The Legislature also approved education bills Thursday that would raise the salary cap for the superintendent of education and allow charter schools to charge fees to cover operating costs.

A bill to post warning signs and permanently limit state liability on public lands passed, but it advanced without changes that outdoors enthusiasts were hoping for.

The final day also was a chance to bid farewell to several lawmakers who are planning to leave to run for higher office.

Sen. David Ige, chairman of the Ways and Means committee, departed to run for governor after more than three decades in the Legislature. Ige’s colleagues adorned him with a neck full of lei and gave tearful hugs on the chamber floor. During his tenure, Ige pushed for greater public access to information. He was instrumental in the development of the Public Access Room and the Legislature’s extensive website.

“The public was guaranteed that for the first time, when the Legislature was voting on measures, they would have full access to every single document … in real time, not two weeks later,” Ige said in his departure speech.

On the House side, Rep. Mark Takai is leaving to run for U.S. Congress, and Fale is leaving to run for the Hawaii Senate. Rep. Jessica Wooley will assume a post as director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control.

House Speaker Joseph Souki thanked his colleagues for their work to improve the quality of life for low-wage, elderly and homeless residents of Hawaii.

“Because of you, this was not only a productive session but a biennium marked by significant accomplishments,” Souki said.