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Hawaii Legislature to consider bills on asset forfeiture and water leases

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State lawmakers have scheduled hearings on bills that would reform Hawaii’s civil asset forfeiture program, allow developers to build solar farms on prime agricultural land and extend the period of time that companies and farming interests have to comply with a deadline for obtaining water leases as a Friday deadline approaches for moving bills out of their final committee.

If bills haven’t been scheduled for a hearing by early this week, they are likely dead for the year.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee will hold a hearing on House Bill 748 on Wednesday which would make changes to Hawaii’s civil asset forfeiture program. The program allows law enforcement to seize cash and property that is believed to be connected to criminal activity. The bill would require that the suspected crime be a felony and that the property be returned if there ultimately is no criminal conviction related to the case.

Groups such as the Hawaii chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii support the measure and have argued that Hawaii’s civil asset forfeiture program tramples due process principles.

A state audit found that in 26 percent of asset forfeiture cases during the 2015 fiscal year, law enforcement hadn’t filed related criminal charges in the cases.

The measure would also reform the program’s finances. Currently, the cash and proceeds from forfeited property go back to the law enforcement agencies that seized it and the state Attorney General’s office which administers the program. The financial arrangement, similar to other states, has spurred critics to refer to the program as “policing for profit.”

House Bill 748 faces opposition from county police departments and prosecuting attorneys who have argued that the reforms aren’t necessary and that the state’s program, designed to disrupt criminal activity and make crime unprofitable, doesn’t suffer from abuses that have been reported on the mainland.

Water Fight

Hawaii lawmakers are scheduled to hear two bills tomorrow that would extend the deadline by which water users, including Alexander & Baldwin, the electric utilities and farming operations throughout the state, have to covert state water permits into long-term leases. About a dozen entities have been allowed to divert stream and groundwater for years, and sometimes decades, under permits that by statute were not supposed to be extended beyond a year. In 2016, the Legislature passed a law that gave the water users three years to covert the permits into long-term leases, which requires environmental reviews, cost appraisals and in some cases public auctions.

The Legislature is considering extending this deadline after none of the permit holders looked like they were going to make the end of the year deadline.

House Bill 1326 is scheduled to be heard tomorrow by both the Senate Ways and Means Committee and Senate Water and Land Committee. A new version of the bill would extend the deadline by three years.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee will also hear House Bill 1171 tomorrow, which would extend the deadline for obtaining water leases by seven years. The bill was “gutted and replaced,” a controversial maneuver in which lawmakers strip the original contents of a bill and insert a new measure.

Solar Farms

Lawmakers have also scheduled a hearing on House Bill 593 which would allow developers and landowners to put large-scale utility solar projects on prime agricultural land. The bill has been divisive among farmers and environmentalists.

The bill would have benefited Ho‘ohana Solar, a company that is trying to build a 52-megawatt solar farm on a 352-acre site in Kunia. Part of the project was slated for prime farmland, which is currently prohibited under state law. However, the solar company told Hawaii Public Radio last week that it no longer planned to locate the solar facility on prime ag land, and instead was looking to build it on lands with lower agricultural ratings, which is currently allowed under state law.

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