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When Sen. Jill Tokuda emerged from her office Tuesday afternoon, about a dozen people sitting outside burst into song to wish her happy birthday. Tokuda hurried by, escorted by a sergeant-at-arms.
But the advocates continued to wait for nearly two hours. They were part of a peaceful demonstration by Protect Our Keiki Coalition to urge the senator to call a hearing on Senate Bill 801, which would establish buffer zones for pesticide spraying around schools and other sensitive areas.
Finally, Tokuda invited them into her office to give them the bad news: As chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, she didn’t plan to hold a hearing on SB 801 in part because she said she had “very strong reservations” about the measure.
The lawmaker from Senate District 24, which includes parts of Kaneohe, Kailua, Heeia and Ahuimanu, requested in early February that her committee be added to the list of panels that must consider the bill in order for it to pass.
The sit-in outside Tokuda’s office was part of a wave of activism over the past two weeks to urge senators to advance bills that would require more disclosure about pesticide use by large agricultural companies, as well as mandate buffer zones.
Advocates for stricter pesticide regulation spent the past two weeks going door to door in Tokuda’s district and phone-banking the district’s voters to urge them to submit testimony for the measures.
On Tuesday, they won one and lost one.
In the morning, Tokuda’s Ways and Means Committee passed Senate Bill 1037, which would require farms to submit monthly reports showing their use of restricted-use pesticides. The measure goes next to the full Senate for a vote.
SB 1037 would shed more light on what kinds of pesticides are sprayed and where, as well as the amounts.
Tokuda amended the bill so that it won’t mandate the locations of fields. She also changed it so that it applies to all farms, not just those of 200 acres or more.
“What’s good for one is good for all,” she said.
In addition, she increased the funding ceiling for the pesticide use revolving fund, which pays for the cost of permitting and regulating pesticide use, from $250,000 to $500,000.
Nomi Carmona, an activist with the group Babes Against Biotech, said she was pleased with that result, but it wasn’t enough.
“We need pesticide buffer zones around schools,” Carmona said.
Opposition to the buffer zones bill has been strong. The Department of Agriculture said it’s not based on science, and large agricultural companies, including Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences, have submitted testimony criticizing the measure.
Still, Ashley Lukens, director of the Hawaii Center for Food Safety, said she hoped establishment of buffer zones could be added into SB 1037 or another measure later in the legislative session, despite the demise of SB 801.Lukens spent Tuesday afternoon lobbying lawmakers to support the measure. The organization has been using a voter file to call residents in Tokuda’s district, the same tactic the group used to help pass the Maui County moratorium despite biotech groups spending over $7 million to try to defeat it.
“We want to remind our elected officials that we’re getting better at playing the game,” Lukens said. “What we lack in money, we make up in people power.”
The work of Lukens and her allies wasn’t enough to get Tokuda to consider SB 801 Tuesday.
She said her comittee approved SB 1037 because it was the measure that was the most likely to pass the full Senate and House. A similar House measure died in a committee led by Rep. Clift Tsuji.
Tokuda seemed irritated that her colleague, Sen. Josh Green, who sponsored the measures, had encouraged constituents to call her office and ask her to hear the bill by posting her office number multiple times on his Facebook page.
“We’ve actually been working on this bill for quite some time,” Tokuda told the buffer zone supporters. “I know that Josh has asked you to go ahead and call us, but what he didn’t tell you is that I told him I would definitely consider taking up one measure.”
She emphasized that the bills are among a deluge of proposals that the committee is considering this week, including a proposed tax increase to fund the city’s over-budget rail project.
Tokuda didn’t go into details concerning her reservations about buffer zones, but she previously told Civil Beat that she was concerned about the Department of Agriculture’s capacity to enforce them.
Gary Hooser is a former state senator and current Kauai County councilman who showed up Tuesday along with his son to support SB 1037 and SB 801.
He introduced a bill on Kauai that imposed buffer zones and strict disclosure requirements on large farms. But the measure was struck down by a federal court judge who concluded only the state has the right to regulate agriculture.
Hooser knows how the Legislature works and how easily controversial bills can be defeated. But he’s still urging lawmakers, many of them his former colleagues, to consider the issue.
“I’m cautiously optimistic that at the end of the day the Legislature will pass something meaningful,” he said.