As the crowd shuffled into Room 211 on Thursday morning at the Capitol, the talk was about April.

“It’s the longest month of the year,” one public official said. “We’re in the homestretch now,” another added.

Hawaii lawmakers are entering a pivotal time in the legislative session, which opened in January and wraps up May 5.

April is when many bills die, and the hearings can seem especially long for folks awaiting final decisions on measures they’ve spent months pushing toward passage. Sometimes the bills die due to lack of agreement over what the proposed law would do, but often it’s over money.

Sen. Jill Tokuda, left, chair of the Ways and Means Committee, talks to Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland after a hearing Thursday.
Sen. Jill Tokuda, left, chair of the Ways and Means Committee, talks to Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland after a hearing Thursday. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

It was only the final day of March, but the Senate Ways and Means Committee moved 22 bills forward Thursday, the latest batch to clear the crucial money committee chaired by Sen. Jill Tokuda. On Tuesday, the committee passed bills to reduce homelessness and create more affordable housing.

Collectively, the bills passed Thursday could cost taxpayers millions of dollars. Many are ideas that seemingly have broad support, like services for the elderly, increasing food safety and cooling classrooms.

But there’s no shortage of demands from state departments, counties, nonprofits, businesses and special interest groups on the $13.5 billion operating budget.

Tokuda said she moved the measures forward to keep discussions alive, but made it clear that there will be a debate in the coming weeks over what actually gets funded.

House Bill 2569 would provide funding for air conditioning, heat abatement and related energy efficiency measures at public schools. The measure calls for $100 million in general funds and $30 million in general obligation bonds.

A similar measure is moving forward in the House, but the funding mechanism is different. House and Senate negotiators will likely be appointed in April to find a compromise for this bill and many others, during a period known as conference.

“Ultimately it will have to be discussed, with these amounts, what is possible,” Tokuda said.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee also passed a bill that would help shore up funding for Hawaii to host the International Union for Conservation of Nation World Conservation Congress slated for September in Honolulu, an international event deemed the “Olympics of Conservation.”

Gov. David Ige is asking lawmakers to find an additional $4 million to put the event on. The bill has been amended so that state funds would be given only on a matching basis with private money raised for the 10-day event.

A measure to move Hawaii toward all-mail elections also cleared the committee. House Bill 1653 calls for starting mail-in elections with Kauai in 2018, then implementing it statewide by 2020.

House Bill 1847 received the most attention Thursday, and was heavily amended. The measure would establish a Sports and Entertainment Authority to coordinate and develop the entertainment and sports industry in the state, including attracting local, national and international events, for the benefit of professional, amateur and young athletes.

The Ways and Means Committee cut out references to positions other than the president and chief executive officer. So no sports coordinator, deputy sports coordinator and secretary.

The bill was also amended to revert back to a House draft that would allow a broader use of any funds that might go to such an authority. Some $750,000 is being sought.

And the committee nixed the part allowing the authority to appoint or retain private attorneys, which the state Attorney General’s office had concerns about.

“This bill has had a long and rocky road to this point today,” said Sen. Sam Slom, the chamber’s lone Republican.

“The question I get from my constituents is ‘Why?’” he said, noting how it seems to create a new bureaucracy when other agencies could be doing the work already.

Sen. Glenn Wakai said a Sports and Entertainment Authority could create new opportunities for revenue generation.

House Bill 1878 also passed, which could mean more money for kupuna and funding to help the long-term care ombudsman carry out his duties, as well as additional resources for Alzheimer’s, dementia, fall prevention and early detection services for the elderly.

Several agricultural and water-related bills moved forward, including a measure to fund research to combat rapid ohia death.

The bills that cleared the Ways and Means Committee on Thursday are now headed to a vote before the full Senate.

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