April 3rd, 2012

The state House Finance Committee voted early Tuesday to advance a bill that would give the governor the authority to temporarily establish lists of state construction projects that would be exempt from environmental review.

But lawmakers added language to the bill — Senate Bill 755 — that suggests the governor consult with other public officials about the exemption lists. The provision was included in response to concerns from environmentalists and others that the governor may not be qualified to determine which state projects will have minimal or no significant environmental impact.

Lawmakers also chose not to reduce the time period for legal challenges or preclude private citizens and interest groups from filing lawsuits challenging a state decision to exempt a state project from environmental review.

State Rep. Sharon Har (D, Makakilo-Kapolei) said she believes critics have mistakenly described the bill as a blanket environmental exemption for state projects. She said many state projects would still be subject to other state regulations as well as potentially tougher federal requirements.

“There’s been a lot of misinformation that’s been espoused about this bill. People continue to say this is a blanket exemption. And it is, in fact, not if you read the bill,” she said.

The state Department of Transportation, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the state Office of Planning support the bill as a way to help streamline the state construction process and discourage duplicate state and federal regulatory review of projects. The governor would have the authority to create exemption lists through June 2015. The bill also exempts certain state projects from special management area permit and shoreline setback variance requirements.

But Gary Hooser, the director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control, said there is no need to give the governor expanded authority since an exemption process is already in place. He said it would set a bad precedent and create a separate set of rules for public and private projects.

“It is unnecessary as there is now in place an established procedure which already provides a straightforward, easy to implement exemption list process for actions or projects that are likely to have no or negligible environmental impacts,” he told the committee.

The bill now moves to the full House for a vote. The state Senate has not shown interest in the idea, although senators have separate proposals to streamline state permitting and procurement to speed state construction.

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