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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, February 13, 2005

Battle may loom over conservation

By Jerry Burris

There's an old saying in politics that the true work of a lobbyist is to kill legislation that would harm his cause.

As a veteran lobbyist once said to me: "A good session is when nothing happens at all in my kuleana."

Given that thought, what to make of the legislative agenda of a remarkable coalition of environmental, public-interest and cultural groups who have put together a package called "Common Sense Conservation" for the 2005 session?

Membership in the group includes the venerable Sierra Club, and the Conservation Council to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, Clean Elections Hawai'i and others.

The group highlights 13 topics of particular interest, ranging from genetically modified organisms to alternative energy and even publicly financed "clean elections."

The three priorities: Paying for the protection of so-called "legacy lands," financing the struggling Natural Area Reserves system and enacting statutory guidelines on what the group sees as the threat of pollution from cruise ships.

Fair enough. But their toughest work may be in accomplishing what our friend at the beginning of this column said was the No. 1 job of any lobbyist: stopping perceived "bad" legislation.

And what might that be?

The group cites four areas where it believes environmental protections are threatened:

• Efforts to eliminate, or at least limit jurisdiction of, the State Land Use Commission.

• Efforts to gut or reshape the state Water Code and the commission that is supposed to enforce it.

• The gradual "privatization" of the state's small-boat harbors.

• The brand-new "bottle law." Difficulties in enforcing the law have led some to suggest Hawai'i would be better off without it.

This will be an interesting fight, particularly on the Land Use Commission and the Water Code, long the targets of development interests and large landowners.

These groups insist they are not against preservation of land and water; they simply argue that these state mechanisms are unwieldy and often counterproductive.

While she has not said much about the topic recently, Gov. Linda Lingle has long been on record as favoring abolishing or downsizing the Land Use Commission. And she found an ally this year in Senate President Robert Bunda, who also questioned the commission's value.

If the debate is simply framed as what is best for the environment, the coalition may have fairly easy sledding. But particularly in the case of the Land Use Commission and the Water Code, there is the additional political question of home rule.

Lingle, a former mayor, is an ardent home-rule advocate. She argues that land use and water regulation are best accomplished by that government closest to the people.

So the work of this coalition may end up being less about creating new laws, but in defending existing protection that in some cases took decades to create and refine.

Jerry Burris is The Advertiser's editorial page editor.