Minority Legislators Played Key Role in Environmental Protection

June 4th 2012


Representative Gene Ward

Hawaii may be one of the bluest states in the nation (with approximately 90 percent of federal, state, and county elected offices held by Democrats), but it had a red streak running through the 2012 Session with minority Republicans making some strategic inroads in environmental policy. The House Minority Caucus (8 of 51 members) spoke out loud and clear on the environment much to the surprise of the majority who found themselves on the wrong side of public opinion on a number of key bills.

This emphasis on the environment was in keeping with the legacy of Republican President and staunch environmentalist Theodore Roosevelt. State House Republicans with the support of their communities and many coalitions successfully defeated many bills that would have endangered the quality of life for our residents and their children. Many saw the 2012 session as a role reversal when the Republicans replaced the Democrats as the advocates of environmental protection.

For example, the Minority Caucus led the charge in defeating many measures that would have temporarily bulldozed environmental protections by exempting projects from the permitting process to hurriedly complete State projects. These exemptions would have only applied to public construction and our members felt that it was as unfair as it was unwise. Our members believed instead that with creativity and ambition, Hawaii could achieve economic development without jeopardizing our state’s unique environment.

A few of the specific bills that House Republicans successfully opposed in week one of the session and were subsequently defeated by the day we adjourned were:

SB 2927 SD2 HD1 CD2 which could have resulted in unrestrained development near train stations. This bill was an invitation for abuse and was at the last minute yanked from the House and Senate floors.

SB 755 SD2 HD3 would have “temporarily” exempted certain airport construction projects from environmental reviews and public involvement. Testifying in strong opposition, the Hawaii Audubon Society said this bill “is not in the public interest and is not protective of Hawaii’s native flora and fauna or cultural resources.” Minority Caucus member, Rep. Corinne Ching warned this measure would create an “open season on the treasures of the land…and health of the people.”

In addition to protecting the environment, the Minority Caucus also worked in its traditional areas of emphasis against tax increases and intrusive government. It was the Minority Caucus that led the charge against defeating a State-owned bank (with Governor Abercrombie as the Chairman of the Board), as well as an Internet Sales Tax that would have been levied on all of Hawaii citizens’ online purchases on Amazon or other websites.

Overall, the 2012 Session served as a reminder that although a supermajority can force bills not in the best interest of the people through the legislative process, a steadfast minority can make a tremendous difference in standing up for public opinion, press for the right thing to do, and succeed. Knowing that we helped preserve the environment for future generations helped us end the session on a high note.

About the author: Rep. Gene Ward served as the Peace Corps Country Director in East Timor and a Senior Democracy Advisor for USAID’s Office of Democracy and Governance. He is currently the Minority Leader of the House Republican Caucus. Ward, who represents Hawaii Kai, was first elected to the State House in 1998.

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