- Special Projects
Marijuana, vacation rentals, food security, energy, pesticides and extending the tax funding for Honolulu’s rail project are just some of the issues state lawmakers are moving forward on this session.
The House and Senate each passed hundreds of bills Tuesday, sending them from their originating chamber to the other chamber for its consideration.
There was little or no opposition to most of the legislation up for approval, but there were a handful of bills that sparked lively debates on the floor, especially the rail tax, sexual education and medical marijuana dispensaries.
The Senate and House each passed a bill that would extend the surcharge on the General Excise Tax that funds Honolulu’s $5.2 billion rail project, which is now facing shortfalls of up to $900 million.
Significant changes were made to each bill last week in committee, indicating the discomfort some lawmakers have with Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s request to make the city’s 0.5 percent surcharge permanent to finish the project.
The latest Senate draft would let Honolulu extend the surcharge five years past its current expiration date, which is 2022. The House version would halve the amount Honolulu can charge, starting in 2017, and let the other counties start collecting the same quarter-percent GET surcharge. But the House bill does take away the 2022 expiration date.
Senate Bill 19 passed with Sens. Sam Slom, Laura Thielen and Gil Riviere casting the lone “no” votes. Eight others voted “yes” with reservations.
Thielen said she supports rail but doesn’t believe Honolulu officials have provided enough financial information to warrant the tax extension. She said the question before lawmakers isn’t whether the 20-mile rail project should be built.
“You need to earn a yes, and up until now they have not earned a yes,” she said.
Sens. Michelle Kidani, Breene Harimoto and others underscored how much the project is needed to serve westside residents who suffer in gridlock traffic commuting to Honolulu from Kapolei and other towns.
Representatives passed House Bill 134 by a vote of 40-11.
Reps. Tom Brower, Aaron Ling Johanson, Bert Kobayashi, Chris Lee, Nicole Lowen, Scott Nishimoto, Takashi Ohno, Cynthia Thielen, Andria Tupola, Gene Ward and Kyle Yamashita voted no.
Tupola, a Republican, said she wants to see the rail project succeed but needs greater disclosure from Honolulu officials about its financing.
House and Senate lawmakers are expected to work out a compromise between their two rail-tax bills over the next several weeks.
House lawmakers got hung up on House Bill 459, related to a comprehensive sexual education program for students in public schools.
Republicans spoke out strongly against the bill, especially Rep. Bob McDermott. But the Democratic majority prevailed as always after a lengthy discussion.
There was a similar debate over House Bill 631, which would let transgender people change their birth certificates without having a sex change. The measure, introduced by Rep. Chris Lee with support from Equality Hawaii, passed 41-10 and now goes to the Senate for its consideration.
The House and Senate each passed bills related to marijuana.
The House passed a measure to allow establishment of 26 medical marijuana dispensaries, a priority this session for the majority.
In one of his rare moments of speaking during the nine-plus-hour session, House Speaker Joe Souki called House Bill 321 a “compassionate bill” that his colleagues should support.
Minority Leader Beth Fukumoto Chang and two of the six other Republicans in the House — Reps. Cynthia Thielen and Lauren Matsumoto — voted in favor of the bill.
The Senate hasn’t taken up the dispensary issue yet but has discussed marijuana in general. Senators passed a bill 22-3 that would decriminalize marijuana, sending the measure to the House for its consideration.
Other highlights of bills passed include a houseless bill of rights, the creation of an Office of State Inspector General (a priority for Senate President Donna Mercado Kim), voting by mail and mandatory pesticide disclosure.
Attention now turns to House Bill 500, the overall state budget bill. The Finance Committee, chaired by Rep. Sylvia Luke, has until Monday to pass the bill. The deadline for the full House to pass it is March 18.