Hawaii’s House and Senate each passed hundreds of bills Tuesday on topics ranging from gun control and medical marijuana to cooling public school classrooms and establishing an all-mail voting system.

The vast majority passed with overwhelming support, and now cross over to the other chamber for its consideration. Only a couple were killed or deferred; a bill to provide funding for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands will be taken up Thursday in the House.

But it wasn’t so easy for a handful of measures, especially a proposal to increase taxes and fees on motor vehicles and fuel.

House lawmakers confer Tuesday during one of a dozen breaks they took during a floor session in which they voted on hundreds of bills.
House lawmakers confer Tuesday while taking a break they took during a floor session in which they voted on hundreds of bills. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Senate Bill 2938, the last measure on the Senate’s agenda, prompted concerns about asking thousands of families in Hawaii to pay roughly $90 more per year so the state can raise an estimated $70 million annually to fix the highway system and leverage more federal funds.

Tax hikes are traditionally hard to pass in an election year — half the Senate and the entire House are up for re-election in November.

The Senate’s 16-8 vote to pass the bill illustrated the division among factions within the chamber.

The group of lawmakers who worked to install Ron Kouchi as Senate president in an end-of-session coup last year backed the bill, including Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda.

Those on the losing end of the change in leadership opposed the measure, including former Senate President Donna Mercado Kim and Sens. Russell Ruderman, Laura Thielen and Les Ihara. Sens. Will Espero, Josh Green, Breene Harimoto and Sam Slom, the chamber’s lone Republican, also voted against the bill.

Their primary concerns were the tax increase’s disproportionate impact on the poor, and a lack of faith in the Department of Transportation to spend the money efficiently and in a timely fashion. The agency has a massive backlog of projects that the administration is working to address.

“I see we’ve saved the worst for last,” said Slom, who called the bill a “triple whammy.” The measure increases the liquid fuel tax, motor vehicle registration fee and motor vehicle weight tax.

Tokuda maintained that the funding was essential for addressing road conditions. Sen. Lorraine Inouye also supported the tax increase and asked of her colleagues, “If we continue to deplete the resources of the highway system, who can we ask to take care of it?”

Espero asked to defer the bill until Thursday, saying that although he doesn’t want to pay more for his car registration, he thinks a compromise could be reached.

Ihara said one of his concerns was that the House could simply approve it as is without considering any further changes at the committee level. That might mean no more opportunities for the public to weigh in.

Senate Passes Voting, Public Safety, School Bills

The Senate breezed through a number of other bills.

Mail-only voting could soon become a reality thanks to Senate Bill 2496, which was passed in hopes of increasing voter turnout in a state where 56 percent of voters in the last primary opted for absentee ballots.

Body and vehicle cameras for county police departments also could become regulated under Senate Bill 2411.

Law enforcement officers are concerned that the body camera legislation doesn’t allow for more input from the agencies that would actually use the technology. And government transparency groups fear the bill goes too far in keeping footage confidential.

7 may 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Senate President Ron Kouchi, seen here after the change in leadership last May, presided over the floor session Tuesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Senate also passed Senate Bill 3126 — the bill that would carry out Gov. David Ige’s pledge to cool school classrooms.

Ige’s plan had called for using $100 million in Green Energy Marketing Securitization funding to get air conditioning into 1,000 of the hottest classrooms by year’s end, and some form of heat abatement for all Hawaii public classrooms within five years.

Lawmakers appeared supportive of cooling off classrooms, but the Senate wants to use a larger than expected Medicaid reimbursement from the federal government to pay for it.

The House has its own ideas on how to fund heat abatement in public schools. It passed a bill that calls for using general obligation bonds and money from the Green Infrastructure Loan Program.

But the measure doesn’t stop there, which concerned some lawmakers, such as Rep. Takashi Ohno. The bill also has a “net-zero energy” provision requiring the Department of Education to produce as much renewable energy as it consumes by 2035. It’s similar to a measure the Legislature passed last year for the University of Hawaii.

Rep. Chris Lee strongly supported the bill, which he said could help bring down the school system’s $62 million a year electric bill.

Senate Bill 2083, which would prohibit smoking in a car with a minor inside, was passed on a 21-3 vote with Sens. Kim, Ruderman and Slom against it.

The Senate sent a bill to the House that would give the Department of Transportation money to conduct a feasibility survey for an interisland ferry.

And the chamber unanimously passed Senate Bill 2397, which would bring the CARE Act to Hawaii, requiring hospitals to put together a care plan for patients being released from a hospital — AARP’s top priority this session.

The Senate and House each passed bills aimed at discouraging unequal pay between men and women by requiring employers to pay equal wages for “substantially similar work,” not “equal work” as previously mandated.

A number of gun-related bills cleared each chamber.

Senate Bill 2956, which would require anyone diagnosed as mentally ill to immediately give up their firearms to law enforcement, received unanimous support. The House passed a similar measure, but eight lawmakers voted against it.

Bills making it harder for drunk people, stalkers and terrorists to have guns also moved forward.

A Senate bill that would allow University of Hawaii graduate students to unionize starting in 2017 was passed on a 22-2 vote, with Sens. Harimoto and Slom against it. A similar bill was introduced last year by Rep. Isaac Choy, but the governor vetoed it, saying graduate students were students first and employees second.

Secured greenhouses could be allowed for growth of medical marijuana by dispensaries through a bill approved by the Senate. The measure aims to change the existing law that requires plants to be grown in “enclosed indoor facilities.”

House Moves On Ivory, Water Rights

On the House side, there was a tense discussion over the future of Alexander & Baldwin’s water rights on Maui.

A&B subsidiary Hawaii Commercial & Sugar Co. announced in January its plans to close Hawaii’s last sugar plantation, putting several hundred people out of work and casting uncertainty over how thousands of acres of farm land will be used in the future.

The state has allowed the company to divert millions of gallons of water from East Maui streams, and A&B wants to keep those rights.

Rep. Matt LoPresti, seen here outside the Capitol in January, called the sale of ivory a "moral issue."
Rep. Matt LoPresti, seen here outside the Capitol in January, called the sale of ivory a “moral issue.” Cory Lum/Civil Beat

A judge determined in January, however, that the state shouldn’t have been giving the company those rights through a month-to-month revocable permit and on a holdover basis for the past decade.

House Bill 2501 would let the Board of Land and Natural Resources “authorize the holdover of a previously authorized water rights lease during the pendency of an application to renew the lease,” according to the House Finance Committee report.

The measure would sunset in five years, and does not identify A&B as the beneficiary of the bill.

Rep. Clift Tsuji, chair of the Agriculture Committee, House Speaker Joe Souki, and Rep. Ryan Yamane spoke at length about why it’s important to preserve the status quo while the land board figures out what to do.

Tsuji said the uncertainties of not allowing A&B to keep the water rights constitute a serious issue.

“It is not the fault of the farmers. It is not the fault of the ranchers,” he said. “The issue is complex. It’s divisive. It needs further discussion.”

Rep. Matt LoPresti said he’s never seen more fear-mongering over a bill.

“Greed is not good. Hoarding is not good,” he said. “There’s enough water there for everybody.”

Taro farmers and Native Hawaiians are among the opponents of the bill. The Senate killed its version of the measure last month, but could take up the House bill when it crosses over.

The House bill passed with 12 representatives voting yes with reservations and seven voting against it, including Reps. Lynn DeCoite, Jo Jordan, LoPresti, Nicole Lowen, Angus McKelvey, Roy Takumi and Andria Tupola.

Rep. Karl Rhoads says Hawaii needs to care about endangered species everywhere in the world, not just its own.
Rep. Karl Rhoads says Hawaii needs to care about endangered species everywhere in the world, not just its own. PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Ivory stirred similar passions, though the debate was not as long or divisive. Hawaii is the third-largest market for ivory in the country.

House Bill 2502 would prohibit the trafficking of certain protected animals and parts of those animals, including elephants, rhinos and tigers along with monk seals, green sea turtles and sharks.

Hawaii is hosting the what’s considered the Olympics of conservation events in September, a meeting of the International Union for Conservation of Nature World Conservation Congress. Rep. Karl Rhoads pointed at this fact while urging support for the bill, saying Hawaii projects an image of not caring about endangered species beyond the islands by allowing the sale of ivory.

LoPresti said he was apalled that people would be more concerned about “the buying and selling of trinkets” than the annihilation of a species.

“This is a huge moral issue,” he said. “As a species, we have to collectively grow up and start acting like adults.”

The House and Senate bills that passed Tuesday now cross over to the other chamber.

Thursday is the “crossover” deadline in the Legislature, essentially the midpoint of the session, which ends in early May. For bills to remain alive, they have to clear their originating chamber by the deadline.

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