Hawaii bill to ban fireworks amended to let counties opt out
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
Prospects for a statewide ban on fireworks dimmed yesterday after a state Senate committee chose to give counties the ability to opt out.
The Senate Public Safety and Military Affairs Committee moved a bill that would ban consumer fireworks, except for permitted religious or cultural events. But senators, concerned about "home rule" for counties, amended the bill to give counties the discretion to continue to allow fireworks.
The bill now moves to the Senate Judiciary and Government Operations Committee. The state House passed a bill on second reading yesterday that would give counties the right to adopt more restrictive rules on fireworks than exist in state law. The bill now moves to the House Judiciary Committee.
Often dangerous fireworks displays on New Year's Eve prompted renewed interest among lawmakers this session to restrict fireworks. But a total ban was always a remote possibility, since public opinion is divided over what has become a popular tradition.
"Obviously, this is an uphill battle. No doubt," said state Sen. Will Espero, D-20th ('Ewa Beach, Waipahu), the chairman of the Senate Public Safety and Military Affairs Committee, who wants a statewide ban. "But nothing is dead until the end of session."
Senators on the committee appeared comfortable with a ban on O'ahu, where legal and illegal fireworks displays in some neighborhoods on New Year's Eve, caused deafening explosions and left blankets of smoke so thick that some likened it to a war zone.
Honolulu police and fire authorities favor a ban, citing the potential risks to life and property. But lobbyists for the fireworks industry have said that a ban on consumer fireworks would likely create a black market and fail to prevent the spread of dangerous aerials and homemade pyrotechnics that are already illegal.
State Sen. J. Kalani English, D-6th (E. Maui, Moloka'i, Lšna'i), said a statewide ban would infringe on the "home rule" rights of counties. He reminded lawmakers that the state Legislature in 1994 stripped counties of the right to regulate fireworks in favor of a more uniform state fireworks control law.
State law allows consumer fireworks on New Year's Eve, Chinese New Year's Day (this coming Sunday) and the Fourth of July. Permits are also granted for cultural events.
Aerial and display fireworks are only allowed through permits.
"You're infringing on home rule," English told Espero. "And you're taking away from my county's, and the people on the Neighbor Islands, (right) to decide what they would like.
"I would support a ban on O'ahu, if that's what they want."
State Sen. Mike Gabbard, D-19th (Kapolei, Makiki, Waikele), a former Honolulu councilman, said he appreciated the recognition of home rule. But he also said he drove through his west- side district on New Year's Eve "and experienced World War III going on," so he believes in moving some restriction forward.
Espero and others who want a statewide ban believe that giving counties the ability to opt out will have unintended consequences.
Espero said if one county allows fireworks, smugglers will take advantage and create a black market between islands. He has a separate bill that would authorize the state Department of Transportation and the state Department of Defense to inspect shipping containers for fireworks.
"If you have a mish-mash of laws from county to county, you have the potential of possible smuggling in of fireworks that are legal in one county into a county where they are not legal, and that will just make the situation worse," he said.
Jerry Farley, who represents TNT Fireworks, among the nation's largest suppliers of consumer fireworks, said people are already buying illegal aerials and other fireworks on the black market. He said the trade would only increase if there is an attempt at a statewide ban on consumer fireworks and even one county opts out.
Farley said authorities should enforce the existing law against aerials. "This is not about anything other than a failure to enforce a statute," he said.