Last Friday at 11:55 a.m. I sat in Conference Room 224 at the Hawaii State Capitol.

I knew the legislation that was scheduled to be discussed, Senate Bill 1007, was in trouble. Just the day before, House Speaker Joe Souki had dismissed the six representatives assigned to work on the bill with their Senate counterparts, effectively ending discussion.

The bill called for expanding current law to “further protect” the state from liability in the case of accidents or injuries on public lands or on “voluntary trails” created by hikers and climbers.

But the bill morphed, as bills often do, over the session, and by April rock climbers were accusing House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke of having a conflict of interest on the bill because she is a personal injury lawyer whose firm could lose business if the state has stronger liability laws.

Luke finally allowed a hearing on SB 1007, but she amended the legislation so that it would simply make permanent Act 82, which protects the state and counties from unlimited liability out of recreational activities on public lands.

Though the bill appeared dead during the two-week conference committee period that precedes the last week of legislative session, SB 1007 was surprisingly scheduled a meeting time — last Friday at midday. Joining me in Room 224 were another reporter and a couple of government employees following the bill.

But none of the conferees on SB 1007 bothered to show. By 6 p.m., the bill officially died, and unless lawmakers pull a rabbit out of a hat before Thursday’s sine die, Act 82 will expire June 30 and the state and counties will be vulnerable to lawsuits.

I don’t know why SB 1007 died. I did hear that Luke was furious that the rock climbers filed a complaint about her with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. Perhaps Luke did not want to set a precedent whereby people could get their way with legislation simply by filing complaints against lawmakers.

What I do know is this sort of thing happens at the end of every session, where even bills with broad support that made it through months of hearings and reams of testimony collapse, like a body left on the operating table while the doctors are busy doing other things.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

An empty Hawaii House of Representatives chamber during the 2014 session.

Often, there are no fingerprints when this happens, in large part because conference committee is conducted behind closed doors. Every few hours or days conferees pop up in public meetings in late April to say they are still working on differences in legislation. Then they go back behind the doors.

The public land liability bill was just one of many examples. I’ll give you two more.

One is legislation that would require health insurers to provide medical coverage for children with autism. If passed, Senate Bill 2054, also known as “Luke’s Law,” would make Hawaii the 35th state to put this kind of reform in place. Nine other states were also considering similar legislation this year.

Earlier in the week, I sat in on one of the many conference committee meetings on SB 2054. Supporters of the bill brought several autistic kids into the conference with them in order to literally show the human face of the developmental disorder.

SB 2054 actually passed in the final minutes of Friday’s chaotic countdown to the 6 p.m. cutoff, and it will receive final votes from the House and Senate next week. But SB 2054 no longer calls for health coverage for autistic kids; it was amended to require merely an actuarial analysis from the state insurance commissioner.

A lawmaker with direct knowledge of SB 2054 told me privately that the bill’s sudden demise was the result of one of Hawaii’s largest health insurers testifying against the original bill.

“One in 68 children in Hawaii are affected by autism,” this lawmaker lamented.

A lobbyist for the bill, who I will also not identify, looked ready to burst into tears, perplexed by what happened to SB 2054.

And here’s one more example: House Bill 2654 sought to help crime victims “achieve financial justice” by ensuring that victim restitution payments are uniformly collected from inmates.

The measure had the support of offices of prosecuting attorneys, the state’s Crime Victim Compensation Commission and the Sex Abuse Treatment Center; the Hawaii Attorney General and the Department of Public Safety, which runs the prisons, opposed it.

HB 2654 made it all the way until Friday at 5:45 p.m. That’s when Rep. Sharon Har, the bill’s sponsor, said the bill did not get approval from House Finance and Senate Ways and Means.

“I apologize to the victims and their families,” Har told the audience waiting to hear what would happen to the bill. “They are essentially the victims of politics.”

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Important decisions during conference committee are usually made behind closed doors.

There is a lot of news to emerge from the 2014 Legislature, much of it positive. You’ve probably already heard about the first increase to Hawaii’s minimum wage since 2007 and a deal to preserve land at Turtle Bay.

I think the process that Senate Bill 2609 went through showed legislators at their best: compromising to help low-income earners. House and Senate budget conferees also agreed to fund more than $10 million in Grant-in-Aid for nonprofit organizations on every island — a boon to groups like Catholic Charities Hawaii, the Legal Aid Society of Hawaii, Maui Family Support Services and the Domestic Violence Action Center.

There are also unfortunate stories to emerge from the 2014 session, such as the the last-minute death of 14 education bills that would have transformed the state’s education landscape. The reason appears to have to do with a procedural mixup.

In each of these cases and in many more, advocates and opponents of bills wait hour after hour to learn the fate of their favored legislation. The reasons are rarely made public, and Har is right that politics is certainly a factor.

When the bill to grant the Office of Hawaiian Affairs the authority to seek residential development in Kakaako Makai died an ugly death as time ran out Friday, Senate President Donna Mercado Kim issued this statement:
 

Conference is meant as an open dialogue to discuss and resolve differences between House and Senate bills in a collaborative manner. Although this bill did not survive this legislative session, I’m sure debate will continue on this issue.

Yes, there is always next year.

But with all due respect to the Senate president — who may not even be around in 2015, should she be elected to the U.S. Congress — so much of what happens during conference is neither an “open dialogue” nor conducted in “a collaborative manner.”

Contact Chad Blair via email at cblair@civilbeat.com or follow him on Twitter at @chadblairCB.

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