The Legislature is set to open its 2018 session Wednesday with a focus on housing and homelessness, two perpetual problems in Hawaii that are only expected to get worse in the coming years.

But with 76 lawmakers representing diverse districts, competing demands from the public and special interest groups and the many requests from Gov. David Ige’s administration and the counties, there will be a lot going on in the 2018 session. 

Nearly 3,000 bills from last session are still alive and hundreds of new bills likely will join them before the deadline for new bills passes Jan. 24.

Speaker Scott Saiki listens to questions at Civil Beat editorial board meeting held at Speaker’s office.
Speaker Scott Saiki and House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke listen to questions at a Civil Beat Editorial Board meeting last week at the Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ige is slated to lay out his agenda Monday when he delivers his annual State of the State address to the Legislature. His administration’s package of bills are due by Jan. 22.

The House minority caucus — down to just five Republicans, led by Rep. Andria Tupola — will be announcing its bill package Friday.

Here’s what Civil Beat’s reporters will be watching for before the session wraps May 3. 

Musical Chairs

Rep. Scott Nishimoto became head of the House Judiciary Committee last year and Sen. Brian Taniguchi has taken over the Senate Judiciary and Labor Committee this year. After the money committees, chaired by Rep. Sylvia Luke and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, these are two of the most important committees. Hundreds of bills must pass through them before the full chamber can cast a vote, which gives the chairs incredible influence over what becomes law.

Senator Brian Taniguchi recess. 7 march 2017
State Sen. Brian Taniguchi, left, is the new Senate Judiciary chair. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

On the House side, Majority Leader Della Au Belatti said chairs will be given autonomy to decide which bills from last session are revived. The Senate will take the same approach.

We’ll be watching to see how their priorities differ from their predecessors, how they run their committees and how inclusive they are of their colleagues’ efforts to pass meaningful legislation.

Consolidated Power

Since 2015, House and Senate lawmakers have shifted their allegiances to install a new speaker, Rep. Scott Saiki, and new president, Ron Kouchi, while replacing Sen. Jill Tokuda with Dela Cruz as head of the Ways and Means Committee.

New members are being courted constantly to further fortify the power structure in each chamber. The House has as strong and big of a leadership bloc as it has had in years, with Saiki and Luke at the helm.

We expect the speaker and president and major committee chairs to hold onto their roles in relative comfort this session but that others will be jockeying for better positions next year.

Election Year

With the full House and half the Senate up for election this year, priorities tend to change. Controversial issues often get shoved aside early in the session. Behind closed doors, the focus becomes what political bacon lawmakers can bring home to voters.

Ige, who’s also facing a tough re-election, has asked the Legislature for a $1.5 billion boost in the capital improvement projects budget for fiscal 2019, which begins July 1. Typically, the vice chairs of the money committees — Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran and Rep. Ty Cullen — handle the bulk of the work in deciding what projects should be funded.

5-year-old Luke Herring peeks out of the polling booth while dad Kevin Herring from downtown votes at Central Middle School cafeteria during primary elections. 13 aug 2016
It’s an election year. That’s sure to have an effect on how lawmakers behave. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Lawmakers have said in the past, under different chairs, there has been horse-trading and threats to deny funding to a certain district without a favorable vote on a certain bill. We’ll be watching for any shenanigans in how the CIP pie gets served.

Issues We’ll Be Tracking

Two major reports, ordered by the Legislature, came out last month and have multi-billion-dollar implications. One examines Hawaii’s vulnerability to sea-level rise and the other focuses on the 88,000 cesspools that threaten the state’s drinking water supply, coral reefs, public health and the overall economy. Yet there has been little talk from lawmakers about what they plan to do, if anything, in response to these longstanding problems.

We’ll also be watching for ways the Legislature tries to improve — or not — government transparency, ethics and overall accountability to the public.

Police reform and the criminal justice system remain a concern. Lawmakers have considered but still not yet passed a bill to create a statewide standards and training board for law enforcement, among other things. Hawaii is the only state without a statewide standards board.

Foster care and elder care will also continue to be on our radar. The state’s rapidly aging population is increasingly seeking long-term care in smaller facilities in neighborhoods rather than nursing homes but this burgeoning industry receives less scrutiny from regulators. Most inspections, for instance, are announced and health officials have said they are perpetually understaffed.

We’ll also be looking for any moves the Legislature may make to lower the cost of living in Hawaii, which has been linked to numerous problems in the state. High teacher turnover rates, for instance, are often due to educators moving to the mainland in search of more affordable housing.

Climate change is an important issue but lawmakers have been largely silent about a new major report on sea level rise in Hawaii. This picture shows erosion at Sunset Beach in December. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2017

Leadership Priorities

Housing and homelessness have emerged as key issues to be taken up by the Legislature this session.

Lawmakers say they will be looking at ways to increase housing specifically for local residents — not investors. One option, according to Saiki, the House speaker, is to revisit a statute allowing high-rise developers to hold back half of the units from the public. Those units may be going to buyers overseas.

Legislators are expected to take another shot at the regulation of online vacation rental brokers such as Airbnb, which has been criticized for exacerbating the housing crisis by filling neighborhoods with tourists. Short-term rentals make up one in five Kahuku homes and one in 10 Hauula homes, according to the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

Ige, who vetoed one such measure in 2016, had been working behind the scenes to draft an agreement with the rental giant. That deal has since been scrapped and the administration will defer to the Legislature for a resolution, said Luke, chair of the House Finance Committee.

Hawaii land-use laws tend to limit landowners’ ability to rent properties as short-term rentals, but county laws are supposed to ensure neighborhoods don’t become overrun with tourists.

WAM Chair Donovan Dela Cruz during legislature extended session to sort out details on additional rail funding.
Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz says transit-oriented development along the rail line will be a priority. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Housing and homelessness will also be major issues under consideration for the Senate, said Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chair of the Ways and Means Committee. Senators will take up transit-oriented development along the rail line, he said, and growing Hawaii’s economy to ensure residents can “live, work and play.”

The chamber is also expected to take a critical look at the island’s visitor capacity, impacts of tourism in public places such as beaches or hiking trails, and criminal and juvenile justice reform, Dela Cruz said.

Sen. Russell Ruderman has already confirmed to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald that he plans to introduce a measure to legalize cannabis for recreational use.

A measure to legalize medical aid in dying, also called death with dignity and physician-assisted suicide, will likely resurface. Multiple bills have failed in past years, despite public support in multiple polls. The bill that stalled in the House Health Committee after easily clearing the full Senate is still alive.

Lawmakers also plan to take up mail-only voting again this year in an attempt to resuscitate voter turnout. Hawaii has ranked dead last for voter turnout the past five presidential elections, hitting a historic state low of 35 percent turnout in last year’s primary election.

Also left on the cutting room floor last session were bills to fund public education via visitor accommodations taxes and another to create an “Airport Authority,” effectively removing airports from the Department of Transportation’s purview.

The Women’s Legislative Caucus plans to introduce broad-based legislation on domestic violence, according to Sen. Laura Thielen. She noted that measures looking at consequences for abusers, services to change offender behaviors and early intervention programs would be up for consideration.

The Hawaii State Association of Counties’ legislative asks include bills to regulate drones, change the distribution of the hotel room tax, use identification cards to indicate a disability and create a 25 percent tax credit for fire suppression systems in residential properties. Maui County has again requested legislation to loosen the state’s open meetings law for county council and board members.

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