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.

7:35 p.m. House Judiciary Passes Amended Civil Unions Bill

After five hours of often repetitious testimony, House Judiciary passed SB 232 by a vote of 11-2. The “no” votes were Speaker Emeritus Joe Souki and Republican Freshman George Fontaine.

SB 232 was amended in part based on the testimony by the state Attorney General‘s office. The AG stated the bill would be “legally valid and defensible” as written but contains “omissions and ambiguities that could make implementation difficult.”

Among the AG’s recommendations are to amend SB 232 so that it addresses filing joint state tax returns, the termination of civil unions, adoption, civil union partners not solemnized in Hawaii and the codification of spousal relationships.

Many of these recommendations were addressed in two other civil unions bills that were not given a hearing this session.

The amended SB 232 now heads to the House floor where it appears to have the votes necessary to send it back to the Senate for its concurrence. Barring roadblocks, civil unions legislation could be headed to the governor’s desk in a matter of weeks.

In other news, House Judiciary deferred action on a lengthy and detailed fourth civil unions bill, HB 1453.

But it plans to revisit later this week a fifth measure related to civil unions — HB 1244 — that many religious groups and individuals testified in favor of today. They believe HB 1244 affords greater protection to those who do not wish to solemnize or officiate at a civil unions ceremony.

4:40 p.m. Abercrombie Appoints Hawaii Union VP as Chief Negotiator

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has picked a vice president from one of the state’s most powerful unions to represent the state in negotiations with its union. Neil Dietz is the current Vice-Present of the Hawaii State AFL-CIO. He will be leaving his job at the Seafarers International Union where he manages daily operations of the largest maritime union in the state. He’ll make a salary of $80,400.

Two other appointments were also announced:

  • Gary Hooser former state senator from Kauai and failed lieutenant governor candidate will direct the Office of Environmental Quality Control, the clearinghouse for all Environmental Impact Statements. His predecessor, Katherine Kealoha (wife of Honolulu Police Department Chief Louis Kealoha) earned a salary of $85,000.

  • Barbara Krieg, a local lawyer will be deputy director of the Department of Human Resources Development.

—Sara Lin

2:59 p.m. Familiar Arguments in Civil Unions Testimony

The Capitol Auditorium is fill and spilling into the hallway as hundreds gather to tell lawmakers how they feel about Hawaii civil unions.

Supporters like Debbie Hartmann of the Democratic Party of Hawaii are urging the House Judiciary to adopt language on taxes, custody and benefits in SB 231 and place it in SB 232. (Please scroll below for explanations of these bills.)

Opponents like Walter Yoshimitsu of the Hawaii Catholic Conference don’t want civil unions — “It will lead to marriage” — but if SB 232 is to pass he would like HB 1244 to pass as well. That measure, Yoshimitsu argues, would strengthen language spelled out in SB 232 that would allow people like ministers, photographers and florists to “solemnize” civil unions.

“This is about religious freedom,” he said.

Judiciary Chairman Gil Keith-Agaran is trying to limit testimony to two minutes and is allowing lawmakers to ask questions of testifiers right after they speak. At one point, couple Suzanne King and Tambry Young (who have been together for 30 years) asked for four minutes time since they were testifying together.

“Two minutes,” Keith-Agaran replied flatly.

Thus far the hearing is moving along at a pretty fair clip.

1:52 p.m. GOP Jabs State Lawmakers

A statement released today by the Hawaii Republican Party:

With an $800 million budget crisis, why is our Legislature today focused on civil unions, assisted suicide, making marijuana legal and ending prayer before legislative sessions? Shouldn’t we get our priorities straight and focus on solving our budget problems Makes you go hmmm …

12:46 p.m. Minimum Wage Bill Moves Along

The Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee approved, with amendments, Senate Bill 1037, the measure that increases the minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $8.50.

Submitting testimony in support is the ILWU Local 142, which notes that Hawaii’s minimum wage hasn’t been adjusted since 2007 and that Washington state’s is $8.67.

But the wage hike is opposed by the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, which submitted testimony arguing it would hurt businesses, not improve the quality of minimum-wage earners and hurt those seeking entry-level jobs.

11:18 a.m. Who Will Replace Kauai’s Morita?

The Garden Island reports that “rumors are swirling” over who might fill Mina Morita‘s state House seat, now that she’s heading to the PUC.

Residents have already started speculating on who will become the next 14th District representative in the state Legislature.

Kauai County Council Chair Jay Furfaro … along with Councilman Derek Kawakami, former state Sen. Gary Hooser and attorney Harold Bronstein are all rumored to be serious contenders.

Kauai Democratic Party officials will forward a list of candidates to Gov. Abercrombie.

10:04 a.m. Slom on PUC, Taxes and Invocations

Sam Slom said today he will have “serious questions” for Mina Morita in her confirmation hearing to be chairwoman of the Public Utilities Commission.

While not suggesting that the governor’s nomination is in trouble — Morita is a fellow lawmaker and popular member of the majority Democrats — Slom said at a press conference this morning he is concerned about proposals to change the makeup of the PUC and the influence of Young Brothers on neighbor isle lawmakers like Morita and Roz Baker.

Young Brothers has unsuccessfully tried to keep Pasha Hawaii Transport Lines out of the interisland shipping business and has warned neighbor island residents that the costs of consumer goods may increase because of it. “They don’t want competition,” Slom said of YB.

Slom also said there is “no movement” to restore invocations in the Senate, although he and Will Espero would like to. “The Democrats vote in lockstep,” Slom said. “It’s cowardly. We’ve received so many e-mails, phone calls and faxes asking to bring the invocations back.”

8:56 a.m. Shipboard Gambling Bill Stays Afloat

The House Committee on Economic Revitalization and Business says it will make a decision on a shipboard gambling bill (HB 1651) tomorrow.

There is some sympathy for such a bill. Said Rep. James Tokioka of Kauai, a former visitor industry employee, “There is a lot more traction with gambling bills because of the state of our finance. I don’t support a lottery because the payout is small, but shipboard gambling …”

Tokioka hopes that local people would be hired to work the ships.

A second gambling measure, HB 1533, which calls for a referendum, was deferred.

Among those testifying against both gambling measures was Allen Cardines Jr. of the Hawaii Family Forum. Cardines warned of the negative impact on families such as domestic violence.

Hawaii Supremes At UH Manoa

The Hawaii Supreme Court will hear oral argument at 2 p.m. at the William S. Richardson School of Law’s Moot Courtroom.

According to a press release, “This is the first time that the Supreme Court has held oral argument at the
law school, and is part of the court’s effort to make its proceedings more accessible to the public.”

Attorneys on each side will have a half hour to present arguments in the case State v. Tominiko, which involves a conviction for operating a vehicle under the influence. Got here for more info.

Civil Unions in the House

Three Hawaii civil unions measures are scheduled for 2:15 p.m. in the Capitol Auditorium before House Judiciary.

As Civil Beat has reported, there are five bills related to civil unions at the Legislature this session.

The lead vehicle for civil unions, Senate Bill 232, has already passed the Senate. Word is that the bill could be amended and passed today to include benefits such as filing of joint state tax returns, termination of civil unions, child adoption, federally funded public assistance, long-term care coverage and state retirement benefits for surviving civil union spouses.

The House amendments would send SB 232 back to the Senate for approval, where members appear favorably inclined.

A second measure, House Bill 1453, a detailed piece of legislation that addresses dissolution of civil unions and reciprocal beneficiaries, among other things, might also be amended and passed. It needs to be heard in the Senate.

Gambling, Smoking and Marijuana

Senate Bill 708 calls for the Department of Taxation to issue “smoking establishment permits” to establishments and premises that hold “certain classes of liquor licenses,” while Senate Bill 175 transfers jurisdiction over medical marijuana laws from the Department of Public Safety to the Department of Health. Both measures will be heard at 2:45 p.m. in Conference Room 224 before two Senate committees.

At 3:15 p.m. in Conference Room 224, two other bills related to marijuana are scheduled to be heard. They are measures on medical cannabis research and increasing medical pot supply.

House Bill 1533 proposes a non-binding referendum to permit gambling in the state, while House Bill 1651 authorizes shipboard gambling. The bills will be heard at 8 a.m. in Conference Room 312 before a House committee.

Snakes and Elephants

Senate Bill 1009 increases the number of live, nonvenomous male snakes that a government agency may import into the state from two to six, and allows a government agency to import up to 10 male specimens of the genus Pteropus flying fox. The measure is scheduled for 2:55 p.m. in Conference Room 229.

Snakes, of course, are not permitted in Hawaii … except for research purposes. A Pteropus flying fox is a bat.

Senate Bill 1126 requires zoos in the state to house elephants in an area that is sufficient to live and roam. The measure will be heard at 3:15 p.m. in Conference Room 224.

Raising the Minimum Wage

Senate Bill 1037 would increase the minimum hourly wage from $7.25 to $8.50 per hour beginning July 1, 2011, and ending Dec. 31, 2012. It would then adjust the wage thereafter “in accordance with consumer price index.” The measure is set to be heard at 10 a.m. in the Conference Room 016.

Catch up on our previous week’s coverage:

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