Possible veto of wildlife bill could be casualty of depleted fund
DOH says Barrel Tax Fund headed toward bankruptcy
Open for a year, the Hawaii Wildlife Center in North Kohala on the Big Island is the only top-tier rescue and rehabilitation center for Hawaii's native birds.
"It's the only one in the state of Hawaii and actually the Pacific islands," said center Director Linda Elliott.
The center relies on grants and community support, but House Bill 988, which would have opened the door for state funding, sailed through the House and Senate.
Elliott said it even got the thumbs-up from the governor.
So she was stunned to learn that out of nearly 300 bills signed by the governor so far, 988 is not one of them.
"To hear it was on the veto list was like having the rug pulled out from under us after all that great work," said Elliott.
"There's no money left in the bucket," said Gary Gill, deputy director for the Department of Health's Environmental Health Administration.
It turns out it's part of a much bigger problem.
Bill 988 asked for a cut of the Department of Health's Barrel Tax Fund, which is a 5-cent tax on barrels of petroleum shipped to the state.
Gill estimates, at the going rate, that fund could be bankrupt by December.
"There's supposed to be a reserve in that fund in case there's an emergency. We have no reserve," said Gill.
The Barrel Tax Fund was originally set up for large emergency cleanups.
Gill said it now pays for 36 jobs at the DOH's environmental branch.
Officials fear there is no money for jobs, or other cleanups such as the arsenic and dioxin found in back yards on Kauai in 2012, or the mercury spill at a housing project in Halawa in 1998.
"If that even were to happen again today, the Department of Health does not have the resources to respond to it," said Gill.
Gill said this past legislative session, he asked lawmakers for an additional 5 cents per barrel to avoid possible cuts or layoffs, but didn't get it.
"You either have to decide you're going to stop providing services, or you're just going to run out of money," he said.
Gill said department officials are holding a series of meetings to see how they can avoid layoffs.
We tried to reach Rep. Sylvia Luke, chair of the finance committee, to find out why an increase in the barrel tax was rejected, but as of Friday night we had not heard back.
As for House Bill 988, a spokesperson for the governor says it is still under review, and he has not made a decision on whether to veto it.
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