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Hawaii Repeatedly Tries, But Fails, To Pass Gambling Legislation

The Aloha State is one of only two states–Utah is the other–that have never had any form of legalized gambling. For many years the Hawaii legislature has tried to push gambling legislation through to help the state’s economy, and every time it has failed. The latest attempt to win approval was earlier this year, when a handful of different measures that would have allowed online gambling, stand-alone casinos, and lotteries in the state, failed again to garner enough support to advance. So Hawaiian residents who enjoy gambling have to travel roughly 2,300 miles to the nearest state–California–to play poker, bet on a horse, or drop a quarter in a slot machine.[1]

As many other states have discussed online gambling but have yet to make a serious move to legalize it, Hawaii is no different. House Bill 2422, which failed to make it out of committee just two months ago in March, 2018, proposed establishing an Internet lottery and gaming commission, paving the way for legalized online gambling. The proposal, sponsored by Reps. Joe Souki, Faye Hanohano and Angus McKelvey, would have provided “consumer protections and capture additional revenues for the benefit of the State that are currently flowing offshore to unregulated Internet gambling operations.” The bill would have also lowered the legal online gambling age from 21 to 18 and players would have been required to be within Hawaii borders. Other requirements in the bill included the obligation of the gaming commission to offer problem gambling information on its web site, as well as guidelines and instructions on how providers must operate. The bill also designated how the revenue generated would be allocated.[2]

House Bill 2788[3], originally proposed in February 2018, would have created the Hawaii Gaming Commission and would have permitted the building of a land-based casino in Waikiki, setting a 15 percent tax on the casino’s gross receipts. Rep. Souki introduced the bill, but it stalled in the House Tourism Committee, despite committee chairman Tom Brower’s efforts to keep discussion of the bill as open as possible in the traditionally anti-gambling state. “Is gambling evil, or do people lack self-control?” Browder asked during a committee hearing. “Personally, I don’t think gambling can make people anything that they aren’t already.”[4]

Brower noted in the hearing that profits generated for the state from the casino could ease future tax burdens on residents. Pro-gambling lobbyist John Radcliffe also touted the casino’s potential benefits to the state, arguing that residents willingly travel great distances to place their bets, but Hawaii doesn’t see a dime of any of it. Radcliff’s research showed that nearly 70 percent of Hawaii’s residents visited Las Vegas, and more than 40 percent of those gamblers would likely stay home if gambling were a legal option available to them. “We export gamblers at no tax benefit to our state, and we export their $1 billion in after-tax dollars, too,” Radcliff said.

A third bill, House Bill 2316, would have established the Hawaii state lottery commission to govern land-based gaming. It also stalled.[5]

Natives At Play–Hawaii’s Gambling History

Despite its lack of legalized gambling in any form in the modern age, Hawaii does have an interesting past when it comes to gambling. Nothing was known of the people of Hawaii until the group of islands that make up the state were stumbled upon by Captain James Cook in 1778. What he found was a civilization that had thrived on its own.

The people of the islands had longstanding traditions, one of which was betting on who would win games during the Makahiki festival[6], a celebration of the New Year during which they honor the Hawaiian god Lono. The festival spanned four months, from October through February, and occurred in three different phases. The first and third phases were times of spiritual renewal in which the natives would make offerings to their gods. The second phase, however, was a little more fun. Warriors representing classes all over the islands used games and contests of strength and skill as ways to train and keep in shape. Games included boxing, surfing, javelin throwing and canoe racing. And part of the tradition during these games was, of all things, betting on who would win. “The ancient Hawaiians had a great variety of games, both for children and adults. The Makahiki festival in the latter part of the month of Welehu was devoted to sports and general gambling. In fact, most of these games were resorted to chiefly for the purpose of betting, to which they were excessively addicted.”[7]

After the islands were unified under Kamehameha in the early 1800s, the ancient traditions, including sporting events during Makahiki, slowly began to fall out of favor. And as Western civilization creeped its way across the Pacific Ocean, missionaries attempting to convert the natives had a huge impact on the change of culture on the islands. “Missionary disapproval of gambling put a damper on the lively betting activity that surrounded most sports contests.”[8]

Odds Not Good Presently For Hawaii And Gambling, But Perhaps Someday

Hawaii is the only state comprised entirely of islands. Residents and tourists alike bask in the grandeur of the Pacific Ocean, a paradise setting, and all the perks that go with being considered one of the most beautiful places on Earth. Tourists flock to the Hawaiian islands in large numbers year after year. One would think that Hawaiian legislators would realize that tourists enjoy gambling while on vacation and that the revenue that legalized gambling would bring to the state could be enormous.

While other states are pushing to legalize online gambling, Hawaii can’t seem to muster enough collective interest to push even a lottery bill further than committee discussion. But the pro-gambling legislators continue to try, session after session, year after year, and when Hawaiian lawmakers convene again for their 2018 session, there’s a good chance that there will be more proposals to legalize some form of gambling.

After so many repeated attempts at legalizing gambling–some have estimated the number to be over 150–it is difficult to ascertain when gambling legislation, online or land-based, may actually be approved in the Pineapple State. Since the state is highly dependent on tourism to sustain its economy and tourists love to gamble, well, it certainly makes sense to at least offer land-based casino options on the larger islands. It is likely that you will see legalized gambling on the Hawaiian islands someday. However, when that day comes may be later rather than sooner.


[1] Hawaii’s proposed gambling legislation fails again – Las Vegas Review Journal
[2] Hawaii online poker bill fails
[3] HB2788 – Hawaii State Legislature
[4] Tom Brower comments on gambling in Hawaii – Star Advertiser
[5] Bill to establish Hawaii gaming commission stalls – Mauwinews.com
[6] The Makahiki festival – Wikipedia.org
[7] Hawaii’s fascinating gambling history – Liebertpub.com
[8] The decline of games and gambling in Hawaii – HawaiiHistory.org