- Special Projects
If Hawaii’s 2015 legislative session were a movie, it would be one with plenty of subplots, lots of suspense and a surprise twist ending that no one saw coming.
Lawmakers mowed through nearly 2,000 bills, bringing about 170 to the finish line, including major measures to extend a tax surcharge funding the Honolulu rail project, establish medical marijuana grow centers and dispensaries and protect 653 pristine acres on the North Shore from development, not to mention a $26 billion biennial budget.
Though the rail project’s fat cost overruns and lack of transparency provided strong arguments to deny the GET extension, the project itself must continue to move forward. All eyes are now on Gov. David Ige and the Honolulu City Council, the next two stops for rail funding approval, to see what they’ll require by way of disclosure and oversight assurances to finalize the surcharge through 2027.
While the medical marijuana measure was too long in the making, we appreciate legislative leaders’ refusal to kick the can down the road any further, rescuing a measure that seemed dead with some fast-thinking procedural moves. We’re still scratching our heads over a fit of petulance by Sen. Josh Green that nearly torpedoed a deal, but we applaud the determination of Rep. Della Au Belatti, Sen. Will Espero and their colleagues in getting things done. With the governor’s likely approval, the bill will allow Hawaii to wade with appropriate caution into these waters and avoid mistakes made by other states in their efforts to regulate the fledgling medi-pot industry.
Legislators showed a similar commitment to the Turtle Bay deal, finally reaching agreement on a measure that originally developed under Gov. Neil Abercrombie. With Gov. Ige’s signature, the bill will appropriate $35 million out of the Turtle Bay Conservation Fund to purchase a conservation easement, providing welcome protection of this precious North Shore land for generations to come.
In a pair of environmentally visionary moves at session’s end, the Legislature approved a goal to move Hawaii to 30 percent renewable energy sources by 2030 (we’re currently at 22 percent) and to 100 percent by 2045 and a measure that would make the University of Hawaii 100 percent renewable and energy-generating by 2035. The bills are the first in the nation, respectively, for a state and a university system, and we strongly encourage Gov. David Ige to sign both.
While the Legislature’s move to allow transgender people an easier path to align their birth certificates with their gender identity isn’t the first in the country, it’s on the leading edge of a national movement to improve the circumstances of America’s perhaps most marginalized minority group. We applaud it.
We likewise support multiple health-related bills, including a measure requiring insurance carriers to provide autism coverage for children up to age 14, a bill that would provide an additional $3 million to the Kupuna Care program for the elderly (though it falls well short of the program’s actual needs) and legislation to provide $2 million to the Hawaii Health Connector program on its now steadier path to sustainability.
Other health measures unfortunately didn’t fare as well. A bill allowing the Health Connector to provide large group coverage would have been a force for good in the insurance marketplace. Legislation that would have required insurance coverage for in-vitro fertilization for same-sex couples and single women also failed, despite the support it would have provided for loving parents to have or expand families.
Lawmakers also flinched on multiple big opportunities for reform, including measures to bring much-needed change to Hawaii law enforcement, a payday lending bill that would have provided protection to some of Hawaii’s most vulnerable borrowers, bullying legislation that would have strongly addressed the issue in schools and extracurricular programs and opportunities to make headway on Honolulu’s growing affordable housing challenge. All bills were worthy and must be brought back for consideration next year in the second session of the biennium.
A pair of Senate key actions determining who holds the reins of power in state government left us with mixed emotions. The Senate Water and Land Committee crossed an old colleague, Gov. Ige, by refusing to recommend for approval his choice to lead the Department of Land and Natural Resources, developer lobbyist Carleton Ching. To his credit, Gov. Ige finally pulled Ching’s radioactive nomination, and put forward a nominee who everyone could and did support — environmental lawyer Suzanne Case.
In perhaps a related move in the final days of the session, the Senate surprisingly and dramatically booted its own leadership. In what was called a “bloodless coup,” Senators ousted Senate President Donna Mercado Kim in favor of Ron Kouchi and moved multiple progressive senators out of leadership positions.
Some say the leadership shift was in part a critical response to the openness of Ching’s fractious confirmation process, which drew huge levels of welcome public input, much of it critical. Kim and others who supported such a process are now out, leaving some observers wary of what the new leadership has in mind for next year. It will be up to senators and community watchdog and advocacy groups to ensure that transparency and government responsiveness don’t join Kim and colleagues as casualties of the coup. Open government can be messy, but there’s no question it’s worth the trouble.
It’s also worth more time and focus from our Legislature. As we watched lawmakers struggle, sometimes unsuccessfully, with big, complex issues critical to Hawaii’s long-term future, we couldn’t help wonder whether the state’s expanding needs warrant more attention than can be provided in 60 legislative session days each year, the number mandated by Hawaii’s constitution.
While committees sometimes meet in the months prior to session to gain a deeper understanding on complex matters, those informational briefings or special committee investigations are few and insufficient.
Compressing most hearings — and decision making — into time-limited formal sessions ensures that there simply won’t be enough time for some important measures and that other equally important and more successful bills nevertheless won’t get the level of input, discussion and analysis they deserve. This session, rail, affordable housing, homelessness, school bullying, police reform, medical marijuana, payday lending and additional Health Connector reforms were among the topics that felt short-changed by the limited time legislators could devote to them.
As legislators know well, there’s only so much that can be crammed into a session. As they reflect on their good work and areas where they came up short, we encourage leadership and members of the Senate and House to consider whether investing more time for formal attention to the people’s business might pay off in better outcomes for our state.