Better government means looking ahead and planning for the long term. I wrote this commentary for the Honolulu Advertiser after proposals were floated to sell off public land to close the budget shortfall – a short term solution with long-term consequences. (May 18, 2010)
Even In A Crisis, Selling Public Land A Bad Idea
Diamond Head, the ‘Iolani Palace grounds, Mauna Kea and the Ala Wai Boat Harbor are just a few of the state properties that could have been sold at auction if House Bill 2737 passed this year. The measure required the state to sell at least a half-billion dollars worth of public lands to balance the budget.
In his May 9 commentary, “State should sell land to ease budget woes,” Jay Fidell makes the same suggestion. I must wholeheartedly disagree.
If the goal is to raise money, then it makes no sense to sell land while property values are depressed in the midst of a recession. Public land belongs to everyone, and it would be irresponsible to taxpayers to sell it for anything less than full value.
As a matter of policy, it is a bad idea to sell state resources to solve a temporary problem. After all, if the state sold land to balance the budget every time there was a recession, we might not have public parks, public facilities, or natural preserves, such as Kawainui Marsh or the Ka Iwi coast near Sandy Beach, left today.
The state already leases land to generate more than $110 million in revenue each year. A good example is Sand Island, which House Bill 2737 would have put up for sale. Lease rents collected from tenants on Sand Island alone account for half of the lease rent revenue that funds the payroll for the Department of Land and Natural Resources Land Division, the Office of Conservation and Coastal Lands, the Engineering Division and the chairperson’s staff, as well as the Land Division’s ongoing operating expenses.
State leases generate revenue to pay for state services, so people pay less in taxes. Selling leased lands means taxpayers would have to make up for the lost revenue. “Sand Island is the single most valuable piece of land the state has,” Office of Hawaiian Affairs Trustee Oswald Stender said recently. “We cannot be selling the corpus just to solve the short-term problem.”
The best interests of the people of Hawai’i are protected by our state Constitution, which requires the state to hold its lands as a public trust for the benefit of Native Hawaiians and the general public. This includes recognizing and settling Native Hawaiian claims to the land taken from the kingdom and ceded to what became the state of Hawai’i. As stewards of all public trust lands and as representatives of the community, our leaders have an obligation to make sure such ceded land is not sold until these issues have been resolved.
However, the state doesn’t always know which land is ceded and which is not. As it turns out, Sand Island, which House Bill 2737 required be put up for sale, is ceded land. Selling properties like it would certainly raise endless court challenges.
Fidell explained that selling Hawai’i's public land would lead to a “great equalization” and “democratization of ownership.” However, there is nothing more equal and democratic than public land that belongs to everyone, benefits everyone, and which can be used by everyone, not just the elite who can afford to buy it at auction. Generations of local citizens have benefited from the use of our public lands, and it is the greatest public resource we can pass on to the next generation of Hawai’i residents.
The sale of state land makes exceptionally poor financial sense and cheats taxpayers out of billions of dollars. More important, it defies our constitutional obligation to hold Hawai’i's greatest resource in public trust for future generations. Ultimately, the life of the land will not be perpetuated by selling our children’s legacy, especially when the permanent long-term loss far outweighs the temporary short-term gain.
Chris Lee represents Kailua and Waimanalo in the State House of Representatives.