Hawaii lawmakers touted the triumphs of this year’s legislative session as it came to a close Thursday at the Capitol.

Repealing the Public Land Development Corporation, investing in early childhood education, putting millions of dollars toward unfunded liabilities and overhauling the state’s information technology system topped their list.

Legislators also spoke of the compromises they will live with, the work that awaits them and the historic bills they passed while conducting the public’s business over the past four months.

After much political rhetoric and heated debate during hundreds of hearings on bills and resolutions, lawmakers left a positive air in the Senate and House chambers. Before adjourning, they continued their tradition of joining hands and singing “Hawaii Aloha.”

It wasn’t all song and dance though. There were some interesting last-minute remarks on the Senate floor.

Hee Defends Himself On Shield Law

Sen. Clayton Hee was granted a point of personal privilege to speak for several minutes on the shield law that protects journalists from revealing confidential sources or turning over their notes to law enforcement.

Hee said he is not the only person to blame for the state no longer having a shield law after it sunsets June 30. Senators, journalism professors and a prominent First Amendment attorney have said Hee’s amendments to House Bill 622 are the reason many media outlets would prefer no shield law over the weakened version that excludes protections for non-traditional journalists and expands exemptions for law enforcement to subpoena information.

Hee highlighted several committee votes and in the full Senate in which lawmakers passed the amended bill, sometimes unanimously, as it worked its way through the legislative process.

“It’s interesting that much has been said over something that we’ve all participated in,” he said.

Sen. Sam Slom responded, saying the government has no business involving itself in freedom of speech or journalism issues. But since it did five years ago when it passed the model legislation that is Hawaii’s current shield law, he said the Legislature should not try to determine and define who a journalist is and what constitutes acceptable journalism.

Slom disputed Hee’s comments, saying the process was not open and transparent because even committee members didn’t get to see drafts of Hee’s amendments before the votes were taken.

HB 622 died Tuesday when the Senate passed the conference draft and the House passed an amendment to just make the current shield law permanent for another two years. The House recommitted the bill Thursday.

Senate President Donna Mercado Kim said Thursday that the shield law will “absolutely” be something lawmakers take up next session.

Here are some of the other highlights from this year’s legislative session.

Early Budget

Lawmakers passed a $23.8 billion two-year budget three days ahead of their internal deadline. The budget was roughly $250 million less than what Gov. Neil Abercrombie had requested in his executive budget.

Nathan Eagle/Honolulu Civil Beat

Senate President Donna Mercado Kim speaks to reporters after session.

“It’s unprecedented,” Vice House Speaker John Mizuno said. “The relationship we have with our Senate colleagues has been great.”

The improvement was also attributed to the new House leadership under Speaker Joe Souki, who took over this session after 14 years of Rep. Calvin Say at the helm.

Kim echoed the sentiment, saying the firm early evening deadlines “curbed the chaos on Friday nights.”

“This year we had no extensions,” she said. “It takes discipline to do that.”

In past years, lawmakers held bills hostage to try to leverage each other. In some cases, they made it an endurance contest working until 3 a.m. on the budget.

House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke, taking the reins from Rep. Marcus Oshiro, led the budget discussions this year. She said Souki gave her a lot of latitude to negotiate directly with Senate Ways and Means Chair David Ige, which enabled them to close the budget early.


Lawmakers also credited the new House leadership for holding hearings on progressive bills that in the past have died in committee without public discussion.

“Things like GMO labeling, publicly financed elections and many others that previously have never even had a hearing are finally getting their day in court,” Rep. Chris Lee said. “This is incredible because whether you agree with them or disagree, we have to have these discussions, people have to have their voices heard, and we moved a lot of those bills along.”

One of those was House Bill 1147, which forces super PACs to disclose their top donors on campaign ads. The bill was reconsidered Thursday after the House decided to rethink its decision on a similar measure, Senate Bill 31. Both passed and are headed to the governor.

Hee said the bills promote transparency and accountability. He noted the 2012 Honolulu mayor’s race — which saw millions of dollars in negative campaign ads funded by political action committees — as an example of why the mandatory disclosure is necessary in an era of Citizens United.

“Transparency in our elections is critical for democracy,” Lee said. “So what this means for the average person is all the political ads that you see on TV that are sponsored by these loose organizations with no real background, they would have to disclose who these funders actually are so that people actually can go to the ballot box informed about what they’re about to vote on.”

Kim said the Legislature also boosted transparency by improving its posting of meeting notices, implementing a pilot videoconferencing project to let neighbor island residents testify on bills and being open to providing whatever documentation the public requested.

The Senate president acknowledged the lack of transparency that occurs when bills are gutted and replaced with different legislation, but said they were still properly noticed. This happened with several bills, including measures related to geothermal energy and the tow-truck industry.

“We recognize some of our shortcomings,” Kim said. “Perhaps you will see some new rules added to our current ones to make it more transparent.”

Majority Leader Scott Saiki said the House took a stand and abided by procedural rules. He said lawmakers and the public don’t have proper notice of bills that are gutted and replaced.

Nathan Eagle/Honolulu Civil Beat

House Majority Leader Scott Saiki speaks to reporters after session.

Saiki cited the 2010 bill that created the PLDC — which the Legislature repealed this year — as an example of what happens when the rules are abused. He added that it is often harder to repeal a law than create a new one, but the Legislature made it a priority this year to end the PLDC because of public outcry.

“We listened to the resounding voice of the people and moved quickly to repeal the Public Land Development Corporation,” Souki said in his speech recapping the session.

Unfunded Liabilities

Another highlight from this year’s session that lawmakers underscored was their decision to get serious about tackling the state’s multi-billion-dollar unfunded liabilities problem.

In an unprecedented move, the Legislature appropriated $217 million toward prefunding the post-employment benefits promised to thousands of state and county workers. They also passed House Bill 546 to ensure the state and counties pay their required contributions each year.

“We become the first state to establish a hard schedule to ensure that all (county and state) employers are paying 100 percent of the required annual contribution by 2019,” Ige said. “It really means that all of the employers would have to make that required contribution or we will take it from tax revenues that they are entitled to.”

Lawmakers shelved a related measure Thursday. Senate Bill 946 tackled the same problem, but wanted to do it with a captive insurance company.

“I could not find anybody who could explain to me how a captive insurance set up by the state would actually reduce our obligations for the unfunded,” Ige said.

Re-engineering State Government

House and Senate budget negotiators put in more than $160 million to upgrade the state’s IT systems, tax collection, payroll, attendance and accounting software.

“The appropriations for the IT systems are very important,” he said. “The state Senate has gone paperless and we’ve seen a significant reduction in our operating costs, 30 to 40 percent. We expect that as we make these investments for all of state government that we would see significant savings.”

The Legislature also passed House Bill 1003, authorizing Chief Information Officer Sonny Bhagowalia to conduct security audits to detect and prevent IT intrusions and theft of the public’s personal information, Kim said.

“We are attempting to become more efficient in delivering government services through upgrading our antiquated IT infrastructure,” she said. “Through refining a number of policies, government organizations also become more transparent and accountable to the public they serve.”

Transforming Education

Sen. Jill Tokuda said she leaves this year’s session with a lot of homework to do in the interim, but excited about the direction the state is heading in education.

“From an education standpoint, this has been a very successful legislative session,” she said. “We’re leaving today with some huge opportunities to make significant gains all the way from early childhood education up through post-secondary.”

The state will be able to develop up to three Department of Education properties through private partnerships, thanks to Senate Bill 237. The goal is to make money off underutilized land to help finance 21st Century schools to replace or rebuild aging facilities.

“Public school lands, obviously another contentious issue, but providing the Department of Education with some opportunities to be creative and out of the box when it starts to think about not only schools for today, but schools for tomorrow,” Tokuda said. “How are we going to be teaching our students? What is it that we want them to learn and how will they be learning? This provides them with a responsible way to look at generating new revenues so we can build schools for the way we want to teach.”

With the passage of Senate Bill 1084, voters will decide in November 2014 if the state can use public money for private preschools.

Nathan Eagle/Honolulu Civil Beat

Gov. Neil Abercrombie talks to House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke.

And with Senate Bill 1093, the Legislature is putting $7.16 million toward expanding the Department of Human Services’ Preschool Open Doors program — a downpayment of sorts on the governor’s plan to provide publicly funded preschool to all 18,000 4-year-olds in Hawaii.

“The constitutional amendment was a significant victory for all of us to have it pass,” Tokuda said. “That’s really going to be able to allow the people to decide how they want to move forward in the area of early learning.”

The Legislature also found time to address old education problems, such as its broken student transportation system.

Costs for contracts with bus companies to take students to class have skyrocketed over the past several years, but the department hasn’t found a way to reel them in. Two bills that passed this session are aimed at giving the DOE more flexibility in how it handles the contracts and how much the bus drivers have to get paid.

“Even bus transportation … by giving them the tools and the flexibilities that they require to really tackle those old problems that have plagued them, I think we are finally going to be able to make gains in areas that have really held us up for literally decades,” Tokuda said.

The Minority

Slom, the Senate’s sole Republican, called the session “interesting and unique.”

He spoke out against the high cost of funding the state’s public employee unions and government programs, and reminded his colleagues of the $22.15 billion alternative biennium budget he put forward this session with the help of his budget director, Paul Harleman, and staff.

Slom said his budget shows what the state can do to get away from its “death spiral” of high taxes and spending.

Nathan Eagle/Honolulu Civil Beat

Sens. Sam Slom and Les Ihara talk.

“It’s really hard when you have everyone asking for something, but you’ve got to say no,” he said. “We’re here to do the people’s business.”

Slom said he was disappointed the Legislature failed to take care of the misuse of public funds and abuse of authority.

“There are no consequences for bad behavior in government,” he said, noting the University of Hawaii as an example.

In the end, Slom said the Legislature did accomplish a number of positive things for the community. But it can’t forget the taxpayers of the state because it’s ultimately their burden.

He said it’s fortunate there were no new major tax increases this year, but said there are a number of mandated benefits and increased fees.

“Hopefully, we’ll all be back next year to do an even better job,” Slom said.

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