State Sen. Clayton Hee made clear to his House counterparts Monday just how little he thought of their latest proposal to increase Hawaii’s minimum wage.

“We have a draft for you, Mr. Chairman,” said Hee, referring to Rep. Mark Nakashima, the House’s lead conferee on Senate Bill 2609. “We took your advice on the CD1. We threw it in the rubbish can.”

The House conference draft, floated late last week, would allow employers with fewer than 100 employees — most employers in the state — to delay implementing a wage increase, which hasn’t budged from $7.25 an hour since 2007.

Hee’s proposed CD1 calls for increasing the wage faster and higher than the House has wanted, and scaling back the tip credit portion of the law.

“We have given you (a bill) on behalf of the working people,” said Hee. “So, this one is a step forward and not a step backward.”

“Thank you very much,” Nakashima responded, explaining that his side would study the Senate’s proposal. “The House likes to keep options open and explore all possibilities.”

“It does like to broaden the landscape, that’s for sure,” Hee replied, as the lawmakers smiled and observers laughed.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Sen. Clayton Hee and Rep. Karl Rhoads confer after a conference committee hearing Monday.

Conference committee time at the Hawaii Legislature has been likened to a form of kabuki theater, a drama — or comedy — distinguished by highly stylized actions and exaggerated gestures.

In that regard, it appears that the House and Senate remain apart on what to do with the minimum wage.

The House wants it to increase to $10 by 2018 but the Senate wants a $10.10 wage by 2017. The House also wants to increase the tip credit — the amount that businesses like restaurants can deduct from employees who rely on tips — to 75 cents by 2016, while the Senate wants to keep it at 25 cents.

There have now been about a half-dozen different versions of SB 2609. But House leaders said privately that they would not again push the delay on wage implementation, something sought by business interests on Maui.

Where the two sides may agree, however, is that once an employee such as a waiter makes $7 in tips above the minimum wage, employers can deduct the tip credit from their earnings.

The clock is ticking: Friday is the deadline for all bills this session, and the actors are looking more and more like they are performing the same play they did last year at this time, when a minimum wage hike died.

Supporters of an increase struck positive notes after reviewing Hee’s CD1.

“After the discussion from the House last week, this is much more in line with the hopes of the working people of Hawaii,” said Drew Astolfi, state director of Faith Action for Community Equity, a faith-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit. “It feels like we are seeing a willingness to agree on the $7.”

“It’s a significant step forward,” agreed Jenny Lee, an attorney with the Hawaii Appleseed Center on Law and Economic Justice, another nonprofit. “It keeps the tip credit at the current level and lets workers keep the gratuities they earned.”

After the hearing, Astolfi and Lee joined other wage-hike supporters in delivering a letter to SB 2609 committee conferees signed by three dozen interfaith leaders.

“Eight years is far too long for the minimum wage to be stagnant, and so we urged the Legislature to increase it to $10.10 without delay,” the letter states. “Doing so will return some of the value of work to Hawaii’s most struggling families.”

Decisions on Foster Care, Public Safety, Natural Resources

In the meantime, final conference votes on scores of bills could not be made Monday because the budget conference committee — chaired by House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke and Senate Ways and Means Chair David Ige — has not yet signed off on the $12 billion overall state budget. Bills that require state funding can’t move forward until the two sides agree.

They’ve resolved more than half of their disagreements on what positions and programs should be funded for the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. But there’s still much work to be done to finish a final draft so the full House and Senate can vote on it before session ends May 1.

In one of the biggest decisions Monday, budget negotiators agreed to add $5 million in general funds and $2 million in federal funds for foster care payment rate increases.

Ige called the raises for foster parents “long overdue.” Foster families have received a monthly stipend of $529 for the past 24 years despite the soaring cost of living in Hawaii.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Rep. Sylvia Luke, left, speaks with Sen. David Ige and Sen. Jill Tokuda after a budget conference committee meeting Monday.

In another key decision, the conference committee opted to accept the Senate position and give the Department of Public Safety 10 officer positions and $260,000 for 24-hour suicide watch at Halawa Correctional Facility.

The House draft of the budget didn’t include any funding for a problem that has made headlines regularly since May 2013 when Public Safety Director Ted Sakai declared his agency had a crisis on its hands after an inmate killed himself.

The budget committee agreed to fund half the requested positions at Oahu Community Correctional Center, approving $156,000 and six suicide-watch positions.

The Senate position prevailed again when it came to funding mental health treatment at various correctional facilities. Lawmakers agreed to provide $786,000 for 21 positions.

Department of Land and Natural Resources Director William Aila is still holding his breath for budget announcements expected Wednesday, but the news he received Monday was fairly decent.

Lawmakers have agreed to give the DLNR $800,000 next year for fisheries enforcement, which is less than the $1.08 million requested but far more than zero, which is what the House budget proposed.

Aila said after the hearing that the funding decision sends a strong message that the state is serious about protecting its aquatic resources.

The conference committee chairs also announced $3.1 million to bring a major environmental convention — the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress — to Hawaii in 2016. Honolulu would be the first U.S. city to host the event. Aila had asked for $4 million next year.

He said the department is certainly thankful for the funding it has received, but is anxiously hoping a big chunk of money is approved for a comprehensive plan to protect Hawaii’s watersheds.

The House draft didn’t include any of the requested $3.5 million to implement the plan, but the Senate version did. There’s been an outpouring of testimony in support of the plan, dubbed “The Rain Follows the Forest.”

“All in all, it’s been a tough year this legislative session,” Aila said. “But you know, we will do the absolute best with what we have.”

Ige and Luke singled out the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations as a prime example of an agency that has stepped forward to help them make the budget more transparent.

The two lawmakers have taken an approach that they call “truth-in-budgeting.” This means a concerted effort to end the longstanding practice of departments holding vacant positions open to cover overtime and vacation payouts.

Budget negotiators agreed to give DLIR $200,000 in nonrecurring funds to use just for vacation payouts next year.

The budget conference committee is set to reconvene at 10:15 a.m., Wednesday, at the Capitol.

Contact Chad Blair via email at cblair@civilbeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

Contact Nathan Eagle via email at neagle@civilbeat.com or Twitter at @NathanEagle.

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