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State Rep. Jessica Wooley will head the Office of Environmental Quality Control and Brian Tamamoto will serve on the Hawaii Community Development Authority despite last-minute objections from some lawmakers.
The Senate confirmed both appointments Tuesday along with dozens of measures that were up for final approval on the penultimate day of the legislative session.
By dinnertime, the House and Senate had approved bills to raise the minimum wage to $10.10, strengthen lobbying laws, allow late voter registration and require financial disclosure statements from more state boards. But a decision on funding the $40 million conservation easement at Turtle Bay Resort won’t happen until Thursday.
If there was a lively debate over Gov. Neil Abercrombie‘s choice of Wooley and Tamamoto, it happened behind closed doors.
Senators delayed their decision on Tamamoto for 45 minutes while they met privately.
Tamamoto has received broad support from HCDA Executive Director Tony Ching, labor groups and others. But senators have called into question whether there’s a conflict of interest because he works for a subsidiary of Kobayashi Group, a developer in the booming Kakaako neighborhood.
Ways and Means Chair David Ige, who is running against Abercrombie for governor, on Monday questioned whether Tamamoto’s position with Royal Holdings makes him the wrong choice, legally, for the small-business seat on the HCDA board.
Senators acted similarly with the Wooley vote. They first stalled by moving the measure to the end of their agenda and then had little to say about the appointment before approving it 17-8.
State Sen. Les Ihara, standing, speaks with Sen. Mike Gabbard, April 29, 2014.
The first of the few who explained their vote on Wooley on the floor was state Sen. Mike Gabbard, who underscored the glowing praise she had received and unanimous support in the written testimony on the measure when it was heard in committee earlier this month.
“I’ve found her to be intelligent, caring, capable and committed to doing what’s best for our state,” he said.
While it was Sen. Clarence Nishihara who spurred the uncertainty over Wooley’s ability to serve by telling a Star-Advertiser reporter that he questioned her honesty, Slom was the only to speak out against the appointment Tuesday.
The Senate unanimously approved a plan to fund the state’s $40 million portion of a $48.5 million agreement with Turtle Bay Resort to buy a 665-acre conservation easement.
It wasn’t so easy on the House side though. State reps delayed their decision until Thursday, worrying some supporters of the bill that it may be in trouble.
Abercrombie had initially sought the Turtle Bay money in general obligation bonds as part of his supplemental budget request. But the House cut the funding in March and the Senate didn’t put it back in when the budget crossed over for their consideration.
It was only during the final hours before the committee deadline for fiscal bills Friday that a joint panel of House and Senate lawmakers agreed to provide the funding as part of a plan Ige devised late the night before.
State Sen. Clarence Nishihara confers with Sen. Laura Thielen on the Senate floor, April 29, 2014.
The plan involves using $33 million of the transient accommodations tax that currently goes to the Hawaii Tourism Authority to pay for debt services and operating costs. Those services and costs are supposed to be restructured so that interest payments are reduced from $26.5 million to $16.5 million. A portion of the interest savings from the restructuring would then be set aside to pay the interest for revenue bonds.
Lawmakers also added language to make it clear the public shall have perpetual access to the easement at Turtle Bay.
But the 11th-hour work on the bill caused some to question whether the committee vote was proper, given how substantive the changes were to the original legislation — which had nothing to do with Turtle Bay or a conservation easement — and not having three readings on the amended version.
The opinion of the Department of the Attorney General is that the final conference draft of House Bill 2434 is in accord with the constitutional requirements for the passage of bills, AG spokeswoman Anne Lopez said.
The subject of conservation of lands at Turtle Bay and the use of the transient accommodations tax for the protection of natural resources and facilities were discussed in both the 2013 and 2014 legislative sessions, she said.
“These discussions took place in a manner sufficiently connected to HB 2434, HD 2, SD 2, CD 1, thus assuring that the public and the Legislature had an opportunity to discuss such issues or suggest alternatives,” Lopez said.
Ige said Tuesday that preserving this “pristine land” — which he called one of the finest examples of the state’s natural beauty — will benefit residents and visitors alike. He described the North Shore property as an escape from the “hustle and bustle of Honolulu.”
Abercrombie has similarly championed the deal, which he announced April 17.
The Senate opened its floor session Tuesday morning by passing an $11.7 billion spending plan for 2014, of which $5.9 billion is in general funds, and a $12.1 billion budget for 2015, of which $6.2 billion is general funds.
Ige, the money committee chair, touted it as fiscally conservative, noting it trimmed $173 million off Abercrombie’s initial request.
But Slom, the chamber’s sole Republican, called it anything but that. He underscored the way the budget was balanced by a temporary surplus and that the following several years the state is projected to spend hundreds of millions of dollars more than it collects.
“We are gambling on our future — the future of the taxpayers — we’re gambling that somehow, somewhere, from sources unknown to us now, that we’ll be able to find the money that we don’t have today,” he said.
Ige, who won the Hawaii State Teachers Association’s endorsement over Abercrombie, again highlighted how much this state budget benefits public education even though lawmakers shortchanged many initiatives, such as preschool, by millions of dollars to balance the budget.
State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz talks to colleagues, April 29, 2014.
After years of trying, the Legislature finally approved a bill to require members of more than a dozen additional state boards and commissions to disclose their financial ties.
If the governor doesn’t veto it, the Public Utilities Commission, University of Hawaii Board of Regents, HCDA and the members of several other agencies will have to file public financial disclosure statements.
The House and Senate unanimously voted in favor of a bill that would require lobbyists to itemize their expenses so the public can have a better picture of how they are exerting their influence.
Lawmakers are on the cusp of approving a separate bill that would force lobbyists to report the money they spend and who gave it to them within 30 days of the end of a special session. Final reading is set for Thursday.
The House started at 9 a.m. and, with just a break for lunch and a few recesses, went well into the dinner hour before concluding its work.
The reason was the same as always: There are twice as many people in the House as the Senate, and there are some major differences in policy and bad blood between rival factions of Democrats. Hence, a lot of debate on a lot of bills.
While the Senate unanimously passed legislation requiring more information in annual reports on police misconduct from the county chiefs, 20 House reps voted against it, many questioning whether it was necessary.
“Our nation is and has been experiencing a shortage of law enforcement for some time now,” said Democrat Karen Awana. “Some see this bill as providing transparency. I see it as doing the opposite — an exercise in redundancy and creating a shadow of doubt (over) our men in blue.”
Rep. Sharon Har said the bill was legally flawed and reflected a “basic misunderstanding” of the process of fact-finding in cases of complaints.
But Majority Leader Scott Saiki and Judiciary Chairman Karl Rhoads pointed out that opponents of the bill had their facts wrong and that the measure is intended to strike a balance between public interest and police privacy. The bill passed.
State Rep. Angus McKelvey, center, sits during the House floor session, April 29, 2014.
Perhaps the most contentious debate centered on legislation that re-establishes a special fund to help the state develop alternative energy research and development. It would be paid for by extending the collection period on the environmental response, energy and food security tax until 2030.
That upset Richard Fale, a Republican, who said the taxes would hurt the most vulnerable populations.
“Children not born today are going to have to find a way to squeeze more money out,” he said. “I have a big problem with that.”
Fale also said he recently ran into a supporter who complained that his own dog was smarter than the people who worked in the Capitol.
“That’s how we are perceived, Mr. Speaker,” he said, referring to Vice Speaker John Mizuno, who was presiding over the chamber at the time.
Saiki objected several times that Fale was straying from talking specifically about the energy fund bill, as is required during floor sessions. That prompted Gene Ward, another Republican, to say that Fale has a right to criticize members of the Legislature.
The exchange grew so heated that Mizuno gaveled a recess and he, Souki, Saiki, Ward, Fale and Minority Leader Aaron Ling Johanson huddled together on the floor to try and cool things down. Members of the House Sergeant-at-Arms office stood by, looking ready to break up a fight or haul a member off the floor. The energy fund bill passed.
There were lighter moments, too.
Fale — who seemed to oppose nearly every bill — voted with reservations on the minimum wage bill, making a prediction that the problems of poverty would persist because of fundamental structural problems in Hawaii’s economy.
“I have a prediction, too,” responded Rhoads. “Everybody that gets a pay raise is going to be glad they got it.”
And, when Wooley returned to the House floor after her Senate confirmation vote, Saiki led the chamber in congratulating “our colleague from Kahaluu.”
Wooley expressed her gratitude for the support she received and said it had been a pleasure to work with people committed to public service.
“I will miss you all,” she said.
Contact Chad Blair via email at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.