A special session to consider same-sex marriage legislation is sure to be controversial. It would no doubt attract masses of testifiers, pro and con. It could well last for many hours, as has been the case for legislation on civil unions, physician-assisted suicide, the Public Land Development Corporation and genetically modified organisms.

But what about the price tag? A special session to consider same-sex marriage legislation would cost Hawaii taxpayers about $25,800.

That cost estimate, provided to Civil Beat from state House Chief Clerk Brian Takeshita, assumes that a session would last just five days. (The overall estimate was calculated based on the per diem of $175 for each of Hawaii’s 24 neighbor island legislators, multiplied by five days, along with round-trip air fare of $200 per legislator. Takeshita said extra staff would not be hired for the special session.)

There could be another greater cost, though, if the legislation does not withstand legal challenges. That was the case the last time the Hawaii Legislature went into special session, when it carved out an exemption to state law so that the Hawaii Superferry could sail.

Talk of a possible special session has become more intense in recent days with forces on both sides of the debate mobilizing. On one side, there is the Diocese of Honolulu, other conservative religious organizations and the Hawaii Republican Party facing off against the congressional delegation, progressive-minded religious organizations and many Hawaii Democrats.

The 25-member Senate has the pro-equality votes to pass a same-sex marriage bill, although some senators are expected to vote against it. In the 51-member House of Representatives, support is shakier; Democrats, who are in the majority, plan another caucus meeting this week.

The Abercrombie administration, meanwhile, “continues to focus on the legislation and engage in discussions with legislators,” a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

Remember the Superferry?

Special sessions are infrequent but not rare in Hawaii. For example, legislators convene special sessions when they override gubernatorial vetoes or vet a governor’s nominations to key posts.

But those sessions are short, lasting only a few hours in the case of veto overrides and about two or three days for most Senate confirmations.

Flickr: billsoPHOTO

Hawaii Superferry

Holding a special session to pass important legislation is far less common. According to Senate Chief Clerk Carol Taniguchi, the last time the Legislature held a significant special session was Oct. 27-31, 2007.

That’s when then-Gov. Linda Lingle ordered lawmakers back to work after the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled that an environmental review was required before the Hawaii Superferry could operate interisland. Lingle determined that the ferry was a matter of public interest requiring immediate legislative action.

The Superferry bill, introduced on Oct. 24 by then Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, called for allowing the Superferry to operate while an environmental impact statement was conducted on commercial harbor facilities.

In spite of sizable opposition, the measure quickly passed, and on Nov. 5 Lingle signed the bill into law.

So why is there no Superferry service now? Barely a year and half later, on March 16, 2009, Hawaii’s high court ruled that the 2007 law was unconstitutional. Hawaii Superferry ceased operations and soon filed for bankruptcy.

The greatest cost of the Superferry special session, many have argued, was damage to the state’s already poor reputation as a place to do business and the elimination of an alternative form of transportation in an island state. For her part, Lingle continued to defend calling a special session on the Superferry, though it was clear the courts felt otherwise.

If Gov. Neil Abercrombie does order legislators into special session this fall, there are at least three risks: that a gay-marriage bill won’t pass, that it will pass but not withstand legal scrutiny later, and that there could be political repercussions in the 2014 elections.

After 9/11

The only other significant special session in recent times, said Taniguchi, came in 2001 — twice, actually.

Besides a brief veto-override session, the first special session was held June 4-8. It came after the regular session ended in early May and before the governor’s veto deadline in July.

Flickr: 9/11 photos

New York City, Sept. 11, 2001.

Then Gov. Ben Cayetano convened the special session so legislators could address a technical error affecting the biennium budgets of the state Judiciary and of the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. The Legislature subsequently passed two appropriation bills and one bond bill; the Senate also confirmed a couple of interim appointments.

The second special session came in response to the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania. Cayetano determined that the attacks had resulted in an “economic crisis” for the state, and so he sought immediate relief from lawmakers and ordered them into special session from Oct. 22 to Nov. 2.

The Legislature responded by passing 15 of 50 bills proposed, including measures that appropriated $10 million for tourism marketing and $1 million in grants-in-aid to help Hawaii’s needy, amended a tax credit for hotel construction and remodeling, and strengthened security at state airports, harbors and highways.

Cayetano was also granted temporary powers to suspend state laws under certain circumstances to help deal with the economic crisis, though some lawmakers strongly objected.

Did that special session help Hawaii? In any event, after about a half-year of depressed tourism, visitors began to return in higher numbers, helped in part by the perception that Hawaii was a safe place to travel.

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