Technically, Friday marks only the 28th day of the 2011 Hawaii Legislature’s 60-day session.
Day 30 actually comes Tuesday, a day before the state budget crosses over from the state House to the state Senate.
And, actually, lawmakers work more than 60 days between start of session (Jan. 19) and end (May 5). But session days do not include weekends, holidays and recess days.
My point is that calendars are sometimes arbitrary measurements.
But, given all that has happened so far this session, it sure feels like the halfway point.
For one thing, consider that two major pieces of legislation — civil unions and an appointed school board — moved expeditiously through the hearing and amendment process. Civil unions are now law and the appointed board will be on Monday.
Given the complicated and lengthy history involving same-sex unions and education reform in the islands, that’s a remarkable turnaround and demonstrates real legislative willpower.
Two other pieces of legislation have also become law, both submitted by the Abercrombie administration:
• Act 2 allowing the state to collect from employers interest payments due on unpaid Social Security (Title XII) loans due Sept. 30 to the state’s Employment and Training Fund; and
• Act 3, which funds the offices of the governor, lieutenant governor and some department deputies and secretaries through June.
Yes, that last act is a spending bill, and to the tune of several million dollars. It shows a Democratic Legislature restoring money that was cut last year to help a Democratic administration do its job this year (at least for a couple more months).
The alacrity with which the Legislature has moved this session was no more evident than on Tuesday, when the Senate floor session finished in about three hours and the House completed its business around 6 p.m. By many accounts, the day set a record for voting on and passing bills.
That said, the Legislature has also spent countless hours on issues that have gone nowhere, such as doctor-assisted suicide and legalized gambling. As in years’ past, strong lobbying killed both.
One wonders how much more work could have been accomplished had legislators not gone down those perennial rabbit holes.
Speaking of money, the state’s two-year budget deficit of roughly $900 million — yes, it went up Thursday for those of you watching — remains the central story at the Legislature.
The Legislature’s approach to the governor’s proposals has been to reject or heavily blunt the impact of most of them, and to offer its own measures. Those measures, as one GOP lawmakers describes them, amount to death by a thousand cuts: a fee increase here, a surcharge there, eliminate this exemption, make that spending cut, hike this tax, raid this special fund and so forth.
It is, in fact, much the same budget-balancing strategy lawmakers utilized for the past several years under a Republican governor — sans furloughs (so far). At present, it adds up to about $300 million annually in raised revenue.
The House budget is smaller than the governor’s but still larger than last year’s. It ultimately will be decided in conference committee work by the House and Senate money committees and the administration’s budget team next month. Hanging heavily in the balance are collective bargaining agreements, where the governor would like to see a 5 percent savings of about $88 million.
Maybe the math will add up. But if it does not, or if there is a turn for the worse in the global economy or more spending cuts in Washington, Hawaii’s leaders will have to look for other ways to find money.
Neil Abercrombie has the upper hand. He has said repeatedly that his budget proposals took old ideas previously rejected along with new ones.
If the Legislature doesn’t like what the governor suggests, he has said — repeatedly — he’s open to their ideas and legislative “will.” A governor, after all, proposes a budget; it’s up to the Legislature to take it from there before sending it back to the fifth floor for a signature.
That allows the governor flexibility and leverage should it be decided an increase in the general excise tax is necessary, or whether more dramatic increases in other taxes and fees, or steeper cuts in spending are necessary.
Meanwhile, the House and Senate minorities are working on their own budget proposals, ones guaranteed not to include raising taxes — and, frankly, proposals that probably won’t receive a whole lot of attention from the majority. With powerful majorities, Democrats have little incentive to listen to the GOP, possibly one of the major reasons the House and Senate moved so quickly in passing legislation.
But maybe they should listen. Which leads to one of the more unfortunate trends in legislative business this session: ignoring the minority.
It’s not uniform; there has been bipartisan support for some legislation.
But in several cases Democrats have shrugged off arguments from Republicans when it might have been reasonable to hear what they were saying.
An example came during floor debate in the House Tuesday, where Republicans attempted but failed to convince Democrats that raising motor vehicle fees was not a good idea, unless the money went to fix and maintain roads rather than into the general fund.
In the Senate, everyone laughs when the lone Republican, Sam Slom, jokes how he has “consulted” with his caucus before voting. But rarely does it appear Democrats are listening to what he has to say.
In the House, meanwhile, everyone laughs at Minority Leader Gene Ward’s jokes. But, at one point Tuesday when Ward rose to speak on a bill, several Democrats moaned audibly that Ward was on the wrong bill. Ward cracked another joke and apologized, then waited until the bill in question came up.
And, on several occasions, I have seen some Democratic lawmakers openly deride some Republican lawmakers in committee. Most notoriously, the governor himself loudly berated Barbara Marumoto over a pension tax dispute.
These incidents appear isolated, though, and in most cases Republicans are respectively allowed their say.
Hawaii is a far cry from, say, Wisconsin, where Democrats drive across state lines to avoid voting against Republican bills that would hurt labor unions. Or from the nation’s Capitol, where the parties cannot agree on keeping the government funded for more than a few weeks at a time.
Most of Hawaii’s lawmakers have put in a lot of hours. A little irritation and anger is understandable.
It might help if hearings weren’t scheduled for so many bills that stand no chance of passing. Of the 3,500 or so introduced those session, roughly one-fifth of that number are still alive.