- Special Projects
The speaker of Hawaii’s House of Representatives was expecting the question: Would lawmakers consider a lottery?
“It’s a possibility that we will be coming up with some kind of legislation, thanks to your Civil Beat column,” Joe Souki said at a press conference Friday at the Capitol, a response that elicited laughter from reporters and lawmakers alike.
But Souki cited as well an informal poll in the Honolulu Star-Advertiser that he said showed 71 percent of respondents seem interested in a lottery.
“I’ve been getting a lot of calls on this — all of us have,” he said. “So, this could be the year.”
The speaker said much needs to be done, including consultation with his fellow Democrats. Souki said he did not want to push lottery legislation if he doesn’t have the votes.
The House would not consider other forms of gambling such as allowing a casino in the islands. And, should a lottery bill materialize, a percentage of proceeds from ticket sales would need to go to fund programs to help problem gamblers.
“So there are some steps we need to take,” he said. “But at this point, it is a distinct possibility.”
A lottery bill, inspired by the national mania over a $1.6 billion Powerball jackpot, could be the surprise of the 2016 Hawaii Legislature. But there will be many issues on the table, most not as sexy as gambling.
There are serious, persistent problems confronting the state. As Civil Beat reported Thursday, creating more affordable housing, helping the homeless and seeking greater fiscal accountability top the Legislature’s 2016 agenda.
On Friday, House and Senate leaders provided more details of their agenda this session. Here’s a summary:
Souki and other House leaders said their House majority caucus package would take on “the complex, difficult issues” that need to be fixed. For the representatives, it all falls under a goal that calls for “solidifying Hawaii’s foundation.”
House Majority Leader Scott Saiki said his chamber is not likely to create new mandates and initiatives but instead will see whether existing programs are working. He said elected officials are just like other taxpayers, frustrated when it seems that government is not working well.
The House wants to exercise greater legislative oversight of the executive branch, for example, to make sure programs are implemented properly. The effort to control invasive species was identified as one example: others include whether tax exemptions and tax credits are really producing good results.
Another area: Is the administration doing enough to capitalize on federal funds given to the state for transportation and health programs? There is a sense that it is not, lawmakers said.
But they said they will devote their greatest attention to affordable housing and homelessness. It’s a challenge that will require attention not just from the Legislature and the governor but also from the counties and private groups.
Cindy Evans, the Majority Floor Leader, said, “As a neighbor island legislator, I just believe that we are going to have a lot of bills this year from different legislators that are probably going to attack it differently.”
Evans stressed the need to focus on workforce housing, infrastructure, county home rule and faith-based community leaders.
“I think we are all in this together,” she said, adding that “the answers are not obvious. But I do think this community is now rallying.”
Vice Speaker John Mizuno underscored that view.
“Remember now, we are facing a most catastrophic problem,” he said. “We’re ranked highest per capita in the nation (for homeless numbers). And we’ve got to change that. In order to change that, we have to make sure our words do not become rhetoric, that we actually take action to truly reduce homelessness in the state of Hawaii,” he said.
Kalani English, a Native Hawaiian who is the majority leader of the Democrats, said the session’s primary theme is “Malama No Ke Ola Pono,” which translates as “creating a better life.”
The chamber’s priority is on those most in need — keiki (children), kupuna (elderly) and ohana (families). Besides providing more housing, helping people without homes find homes and giving more support to social service providers, the Senate wants to set benchmarks for local food growth and consumption, to continue the move toward renewable energy and efficiency, and to protect natural resources and agricultural lands, he said.
English’s approach to the Senate’ priorities is integrated and holistic. Now in his second year as majority leader, he is repeating the pattern of his first session of abandoning the traditional introduction of a majority package of bills in favor of a thematically linked approach — a pattern he believes results in better legislation.
The four themes are providing for families, taking care of the Earth, sustaining communities and having good government.
English acknowledges that the new approach has been a little bumpy.
“It’s very hard for people to change gears, because they are used to saying, ‘Here’s the majority’s package of bills,’” he said. “What I am asking is much more difficult, I’m asking our members to look at these overarching themes as they are drafting their bills to incorporate these themes into them.”
As example, if a member has a bill about farming, how does it connect with self-sustainability?
In a nod toward greater transparency and accessibility, English said all Senate hearings would be broadcast live, “in real time,” not just select hearings.
English was asked about greater police oversight (he said he needs to see more details), the moving of the Oahu Community Correctional Center to Halawa Valley (how much will it cost, and how much will it save, he asks) and the rebuilding of the state hospital (he has similar cost concerns as with the correctional facility).
The majority leader also stood with the Ige administration in arguing that the judicial branch is overstepping its boundaries in demanding that the executive and legislative branches give more money to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
Finally, English wants the Hawaiian language — one of the state’s two official languages — to be used in more government documents such as court rulings and legislative hearing notices.
Both Sam Slom, the only Republican in the 25-member Senate, and Beth Fukumoto Chang, the leader of the seven Republicans in the 51-member house, are embracing homelessness, housing and fiscal accountability as their priorities, too.
But each caucus has other issues of interest.
For Fukumoto Chang, the minority leader, addressing the cost of living and helping business to do business are top of mind. One example is to look at building codes to allow for the possibility of building dormitories for people, not students.
“These would essentially be dorm rooms for people to rent or purchase,” she said. “Probably the market for that is single males, as past history suggests.”
The dorms would not have kitchens of bathrooms, but there would be such facilities on each floor.
Chang also said her caucus is working on a bill to provide free community college vocational training for displaced workers on Maui, stemming form Alexander & Baldwin’s ending of sugar cane production.
Late Friday the GOP House caucus released a list of 10 priorities for the session. The top three are lowering income taxes for middle- and low-income earners by 25 percent; establishing a refundable state earned income tax credit; and exempting payments on food, medicine and on rental subsidy payments for Section 8 and Housing First programs from the general excise tax.
Slom said he has five top priorities:
On that last point, Slom’s office will once again present an alternative budget to the Democrats’.
“We need to start holding government agencies accountable,” said Slom, who said people are frustrated that Hawaii has no process for initiatives, referendums or recalls at the state level.