Welcome to Capitol Watch. There’s a new governor, new leadership at the Legislature and other government branches, and Civil Beat is reporting on all of it.

4:10 p.m. Abercrombie v. Florida

Gov. Abercrombie today released the following statement on a ruling by a federal judge in Florida that President Obama’s health care law is unconstitutional:

“States across the nation, including Hawaii, are dealing with an unprecedented fiscal crisis in large part because of rising health care costs. While the courts do their work to resolve legal challenges to the Affordable Care Act, Hawaii will continue to move forward with implementation of this major legislation.

“For example, in Hawaii, the Affordable Care Act ensures that 193,000 seniors with Medicare don’t have to pay more for preventive services like mammograms and colonoscopies, and allows for 2,550 young adults to have medical coverage under their parent’s plans until age 26.

“I want to emphasize that Hawaii has filed an amicus brief along with other states in support of the Act. Hawaii fully supports the President and the legislative intent of the ACA.”

3:58 p.m. Kaauwai v. King Of Pork

GOP Chairman Jonah Kaauwai today released the following statement in reaction to Dan Inouye announcing he would not accept requests for earmarks for the next two years:

“Hawaii’s Machine Democrats and their public union cronies, led by Senator Inouye, have for decades participated in the less-than-transparent practice of earmarking on the national level facilitated a culture of wasteful spending and special interest corruption. This impairment of integrity is what Governor Abercrombie based his plan to balance the budget off of. Although Governor Abercrombie will have access to Federal monies that are readily available to every state to fund certain spending projects, the days of free pork paid for by borrowed money are over.

“Senator Inouye’s agreeing to ban the practice earmarks for the next two years will seriously impact the construction and trades industries whom depend greatly on military and other earmark funded projects. The ‘King of Pork’s’ years of earmarking have left Hawaii unnecessarily dependant on Federal Government handouts. I believe that Hawaii’s people want to and can be self-sustaining and this is a positive first step toward standing on our own two feet and getting our nation out of debt.” 

2:40 p.m. The Mike and Donna Show

For over one hour and 25 minutes now, Donna Mercado Kim has been needling Mike McCartney (and Ron Williams) on the Hawaii Tourism Authority‘s budget.

In a nutshell, Kim, chairwoman of the Senate Tourism Committee, thinks the HTA spends too much money on marketing at the expense of programs like product improvement and cultural programs (and besides, the governor wants $10 million of the HTA’s annual $79 million). She thinks the $29.3 million given by the HTA to the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau may not be spent wisely given the large number of subcontracts the HVCB has. She thinks the HTA should find a way to refinance the $132 million debt service for the Hawaii Convention Center. The HTA needs to do a better job. And if the HTA doesn’t give her the answers she want, she will cut its budget.

McCartney, the HTA president and CEO (and Williams, HTA board chair) says the marketing money is well spent — the HTA’s job is branding, after all — and the proof is in the $11.5 billion in visitor spending last year. If Hawaii doesn’t keep it up, Mexico and other competing destinations will take from Hawaii’s market share. The HVCB money is well spent, and the HCC operating deficit is a complex matter because of the way the issuing bonds were established. The HTA is doing its best to balance multiple budget needs. Yes, thank you, senator, the HTA certainly will try to do a better job. And please, please don’t take away its money.

Speaking of the transient accommodations tax, which is where HTA gets its money, here’s the HTA’s estimate of how the money will be divided in FY 2012: $285 million will be collected, of which $76 million will go to HTA, $33 million for the Hawaii Convention Center, $75 million for the state’s general fund and $100 million to the four counties including $44 million to Oahu.

That’s a lot of money — and that’s why Donna Kim and Neil Abercrombie are going over that budget with, as Kim put it, a fine-toothed comb.

1:19 a.m. Paganism Making ‘Comeback’ in Hawaii

OneNewsNow.com reports that “a political activist and pro-family leader is outraged that the Hawaii State Senate has bowed to a threat from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and voted to cease opening its sessions with prayer.”

The publication (“Your Latest News from a Christian perspective”) adds:

“I’m told from a friend who lives in Hawaii that paganism has made a big comeback in Hawaii [and] that you don’t go around knocking the native gods,” reports Robert Knight, senior writer for Coral Ridge Ministries and senior fellow at The American Civil Rights Union. “I had thought that Christian missionaries had pretty much Christianized Hawaii, and I know there are a lot of good Christians there, but I think this is still shocking that they’d go this far.”

And Knight laments that while the Hawaii Senate has bought into the “separation of church and state argument,” it does not seem to have any trouble promoting Islam.

“In 2009, the Hawaii Senate chamber approved an Islam Day resolution, and it shows that there’s a double standard here,” the senior writer decides. “Something that celebrates or acknowledges Christianity, it’s verboten. But when you celebrate Islam or anything else, then it’s OK. That’s multiculturalism; that means anything but Christianity.”

However, he has been told there is an effort afoot to bring prayer back to the Senate chamber.

Note: This item was posted on Hawaii Free Press today.

12:06 p.m. Abercrombie Goes To China

Well, no, not exactly.

But the governor is scheduled to deliver brief remarks at a China Eastern Airlines Welcome Dinner, which will be held from 5:30 to 7 p.m. tonight at the Sheraton Waikiki.

As reported, the first of a series of charter flights arrived in Honolulu from Beijing over the weekend, “the first sign of growing Chinese interest in visiting the islands.”

11:02 a.m. Lopez, Takamine Sail Through Senate Committees

Kealii Lopez and Dwight Takamine were confirmed unanimously by separate Senate committees today to lead, respectively, the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs and Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Both nominations await a full Senate vote, but it looks like they’re headed to be the first two nominees of Gov. Neil Abercrombie confirmed.

Civil Beat was at the Lopez hearing and there was, as Rosalyn Baker herself put it, virtually no negative written testimony and zero negative oral testimony.

“A more capable and qualifed nominee would be hard to find,” testified blogger and government transparency advocate Larry Geller.

Some had thought Lopez might receive greater scrutiny, given that she had moved from leading the nonprofit Olelo Community Media to the revenue-sustained DCCA. Her new job was also formerly held by Mark Recktenwald, who was widely credited for revamping DCCA operations and who is now chief justice of the Hawaii Supreme Court.

But Lopez, as evinced by the testimony in support of her nomination, is admired by many for her competence, work ethic and heart.

Lopez said her goals for DCCA include increasing public confidence in DCCA and greater openness.

10:28 a.m. Inouye Announces Earmarks Moratorium

Dan Inouye today announces that the Senate Appropriations Committee will implement a moratorium on earmarks for the current session of Congress — a two-year moratorium on bills in FY 2011 and FY 2012.   
 
Inouye said in a statement:

I continue to support the Constitutional right of members of Congress to direct investments to their states and districts under the fiscally responsible and transparent earmarking process that we have established.

However, the handwriting is clearly on the wall. The President has stated unequivocally that he will veto any legislation containing earmarks, and the House will not pass any bills that contain them. Given the reality before us, it makes no sense to accept earmark requests that have no chance of being enacted into law.

The Appropriations Committee will thoroughly review its earmark policy to ensure that every member has a precise definition of what constitutes an earmark. To that end, we will send each member a letter with the interpretation of Rule XLIV (44) that will be used by the Committee. If any member submits a request that is an earmark as defined by that rule, we will respectfully return the request.

Next year, when the consequences of this decision are fully understood by the members of this body, we will most certainly revisit this issue and explore ways to improve the earmarking process. At the appropriate time, I will once again urge the Senate to consider a transparent and fair earmark process that protects our rights as legislators to answer the petitions of our constituents, regardless of what the President or some Federal bureaucrat thinks is right.”
 

9:15 a.m. McKenna Confirmation Hearing Friday

The governor’s nomination of Sabrina McKenna to be an associate justice on the Hawaii Supreme Court is scheduled for Friday at 10 a.m. in Conference Room 016.

The hearing is before the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee.

8:45 a.m. Soda Tax Hard To Swallow

West Hawaii Today reports that Big Island businesses that rely on sales of soda pop “say the timing of the move would make a tough economy even tougher for them.”

Gov. Neil Abercrombie said initiatives like the soda tax proposed in House Bill 1216 are necessary if Hawaii is to make up a projected deficit of more than $800 million over the next two and a half years. He proposed taxing soda pop to the tune of 10 cents per container up to 12 ounces, and 25 cents for larger containers.

Soft drink distributor Jim Hawkins, owner of Big Island Vending in Kailua-Kona, says he hopes Hawaii’s soda tax bill (does not pass). “We’re already experiencing cost increases this year because our major suppliers have increased costs. Coke and Pepsi have increased my wholesale prices, and coupled with gas … it takes a lot just to show a profit,” he said.

“Every time I experience a cost increase, I have to pass it on to my customers.” As for the health benefits the governor says could be created by the tax, Hawkins said he’s seen little evidence to that effect.

Takamine In the Hot Seat

Neil Abercrombie‘s labor director, Dwight Takamine, goes before the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee today at 10 a.m. in Conference Room 016.

Though confirmation hearings can be wildly unpredictable — Katherine Leonard, anyone? — Takamine, a former state representative and state senator from the Big Island, will probably receive a warm welcome from his former colleagues.

HTA, HVCB and TAT

This should be interesting: The Hawaii Tourism Authority and its top marketer, the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau, have been invited to brief the Senate’s Tourism and Ways & Means committees “on the status of the transient accommodations tax (TAT) collections.”

The governor, as you may have heard, is looking to take $10 million in TAT from the HTA, while the Legislature tried to grab the counties’ share of the TAT last session.

The hearing is set for 1:15 p.m. in Conference Room 211.

Ranger Sam

Sam Slom, the only Republican in the 25-member Senate, inaugurates a weekly press conference beginning today at 9:30 a.m. in Room 214 at the Capitol. E komo mai!

One perk to being a minority of one: Slom sits on all Senate committees and can speak his mind on all bills — and often does!

Bills: Elections, Campaigns, Transparency

A slew of bills that aim to improve our representative democracy will be heard beginning at 2 p.m. in Conference Room 325. The committee is the House Judiciary, now led by Gil Keith-Agaran.

The measures include House Bill 100 that establishes mail-in elections, House Bill 638 that creates instant runoff elections, and several bills intended to improve voter registration, sunshine and ethics laws and campaign-spending laws.

In related news, Karl Rhoads, the committee’s vice chairman, has introduced House Bill 48, which requires that all applicants for driver’s licenses or state identification cards be automatically registered to vote. The bill has been deferred for now.

Bills: Fireworks, Cargo Inspections

Several bills calling for inspection of cargo to find illegal fireworks will be heard beginning at 2:45 in Conference Room 224.

And stick around in that same room, because a whole bunch of bills relating to fireworks will be heard beginning at 3:30 p.m. The measures include ones to ban sky lanterns and prohibit the sale of novelty lighters and forbid the setting off of homemade explosive devices.

Hawaiians Part of Veterans’ Outreach

The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has created an Office of Tribal Government Relations to help the more than 200,000 veterans who are American Indians, Alaska Natives, Hawaiian Natives or are part of the Alaska Native Corporations receive their VA benefits.

“There is a long, distinguished tradition of military service among tribal peoples,” said Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki (a Kauai boy) in a press statement this week. “VA is committed to providing these Veterans with the full range of VA programs, as befits their service to our nation.”


Catch up on our previous week’s coverage:

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