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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Selling state land a sensible idea to raise cash

House Speaker Calvin Say is planning a garage sale to try to raise $500 million.

Instead of rusty bikes and musty aloha shirts, Say is proposing through House Bill 2737 to sell state-owned land that is "not essential to the public health, safety and welfare services (of) the state or county."

The bill calls for the potential sale of any public lands that can generate at least $500 million in cash. It correctly requires that 20 percent of the sale of any ceded lands go to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, with the rest going into the general fund.

The parcels cited as examples in the bill range from unremarkable frontage road acreage in Mililani to one-of-a-kind locations such as Kaka'ako Makai, the Ala Wai Boat Harbor, Waikiki Yacht Club, La Mariana and Pier 60, some acreage in Kalaeloa and in Kapolei, adjacent to the proposed University of Hawai'i-West O'ahu campus.

The bill also mentions the Mauna Kea Scientific Reserve, the site of the complex of 13 telescopes atop Mauna Kea, as well as a 143-acre portion of the Mauna Kea Ice Age Natural Area Reserve.

The House Finance Committee will hold a hearing on the bill today at 10 a.m. in Room 308 of the state Capitol.

In a year when legislators are looking at every option for filling in a $1.2 billion budget hole, it's reasonable for the state to sell off some land, especially valuable commercial property such as the Ala Wai Boat Harbor, which has been held together with duct tape and baling wire.

The state simply owns too much commercial and industrial property that it can't competently manage.

The unfulfilled dream of those elusive "public-private partnerships" has turned space such as the old naval air station at Kalaeloa into an unproductive wasteland that will never attract investors as long as it remains leasehold property.

At other properties, like boat harbors, the state has proven itself to be the worst kind of slumlord, raising rent while refusing to spend money on even the most basic repairs and improvements. Tenants spend the minimum to keep up their facilities, knowing that when their lease runs out it will go up for public bid.

Proposing to sell state lands, especially such hallowed places as Mauna Kea, is sure to meet with loud opposition. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that the state may sell ceded lands, a sale of the magnitude proposed by Say will be seen as cashing out Native Hawaiian interests.

But shouting down this idea will only make it easier for legislative leaders to say essentially, "Hey, we looked at gambling and selling state lands and nobody wanted to go there, so now the only thing left to do is raise taxes."

The state shouldn't put any piece of Mauna Kea on the market.

But it's worth making an inventory of the hundreds of real estate odds and ends that could be sold with no harm to the public interest.

And the state absolutely should get out of the commercial real estate business, allowing private businesses to buy in, make improvements and contribute to the tax base.