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Hawaii lawmakers are moving dozens of bills closer to becoming law as the 2018 legislative session enters its final weeks. But the recent gut-and-replace tactics of key Senate leaders who are swapping language in one bill for another have clearly confused many legislators, disrupting the normally smooth consideration of proposed measures.
On Tuesday, bills relating to the management of Mauna Kea, the mountain on Hawaii Island that hosts a dozen observatories and is the planned site of the proposed $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope, generated much of the consternation.
Thursday is the Legislature’s “second crossover” — the deadline for when the House and Senate send back their revised versions of bills that had already been approved by the chamber they started in.
The state’s overall $14 billion spending plan for next year, a ban on reef-killing sunscreen, a constitutional amendment to tax investment properties and dozens of other bills are now headed down the homestretch of the legislative session.
Joint conference committees composed of members from each chamber will endeavor to negotiate their differences on the bills before the session ends May 3.
Of almost 5,000 bills that were on the table when the session began in January, just a few hundred are still alive. Many more will die over the next three weeks, with little advance warning and no further public testimony accepted.
And some that seem to have died may be resurrected through the gut-and-replace tactic, which involves removing the entire contents of a bill and inserting the contents of another in its place with little or no public notice.
The main vehicle to create a Mauna Kea Management Authority, Senate Bill 3090, which was put forward by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and 16 other lawmakers, had cleared the Senate earlier this session but died last month in the House.
To keep the idea alive, lawmakers at last week’s joint meeting of three Senate committees — chaired by Dela Cruz and Sens. Kai Kahele and Karl Rhoads — gutted House Bill 1985, which originally dealt with agricultural land and affordable housing, and replaced its contents with an amended version of SB 3090.
Kahele said it took into account hundreds of conversations he and other senators have had with community members and stakeholders about the need to hold the University of Hawaii and Department of Land and Natural Resources accountable for their management of the mountain and the telescope activities atop it.
Audits since the 1990s have criticized the agencies, although some progress has been cited since protests halted construction of TMT three years ago. The new authority that the bill would create wrests control from UH and establishes an appointed nine-member, mostly Native Hawaiian board that leaves DLNR on the sidelines.
Senators were confused by Kahele’s effort to use a standard legislative tool to force further discussion on the bill.
He wanted to change the bill’s effective date to 2033, which would force the measure to go to conference committee for further work and necessitate another vote by the full House and Senate.
But lawmakers wanted answers because the amendment said two of the sections, which had $1 million worth of funding to get the authority going, would still take effect July 1.
The amendment was redrafted to clarify that certain parts of the bill would not become law until the entire measure was approved.
Kahele said after the floor session ended that the “high visibility” of the Mauna Kea bills caused lawmakers to be more concerned about this technical matter than they would have otherwise.
His amendment to a separate Mauna Kea bill, which would require the state auditor to conduct a financial, performance and management audit of UH’s activities related to Mauna Kea, went smoother but the gut-and-replace method of bringing the measure this far again drew concern from some senators.
Sen. Donna Mercado Kim said no one wants to hold UH accountable more than she does, but she supports the standard legislative process and rules.
“We have to guard the fact that the public has to have a say,” Kim said.
House Bill 1585, which was introduced at the beginning of the 2017 legislative session, initially had the sole purpose of dealing with UH’s deferred maintenance backlog and modernizing its facilities.
But the Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Dela Cruz, gutted and replaced it last week with the contents of a Senate measure that died in the House last month.
“We have to guard the fact that the public has to have a say.” — Sen. Donna Mercado Kim
It was actually a double gut-and-replace because Senate Bill 757, the measure that was inserted into HB 1585 last week, was initially a bill to provide revenue bonds for UH to address its parking needs but was gutted and replaced in February with similar legislation for a Mauna Kea audit.
Dela Cruz and other lawmakers have maintained that the procedures abide by Senate rules and keep important ideas alive.
Kahele said because the legislative session lasts only 60 days, this path for HB 1585 is one of the procedural tools that the Senate needs to use. He said community conversations throughout the state resulted in the Mauna Kea legislation.
“It’s reflective of the real anxiety and untenable pressure that is building behind the situation on Mauna Kea,” Kahele said.
Both Mauna Kea bills will be up for a vote by the full Senate on Thursday.
In other business, the Senate unanimously passed the overall state budget bill.
The version crafted by the Ways and Means Committee restores funding that the House had cut from its draft of the budget.
The Senate version adds $70.7 million for fiscal year 2019, which starts July 1, making the overall general fund operating budget $7.49 billion. The construction project budget is $2.04 billion.
The House version provided $7.41 billion in general fund operating costs and a $2.19 billion capital improvement projects budget.
Gov. David Ige had proposed a $7.42 billion spending plan and a $2.19 billion CIP budget.
The Senate budget funds the Office of Information Practices’ request for $115,000 to bring its staff attorneys’ salaries up to par with other state agencies. It also provides $400,000 and five positions to promote public-private partnerships, a longtime Dela Cruz initiative.
It provides $125 million for the Emergency and Budget Reserve Fund and $1 million to fight invasive species and do a pilot project for pesticide drift buffer zones.
Additional funding was also provided to numerous housing, homelessness and kupuna programs, and millions of dollars were allotted to fund lifeguards at state beaches and improve the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.
On the House side, one of the biggest debates was over a proposed constitutional amendment to fund public education by giving the Legislature the authority to tax investment properties.
Senate Bill 2922, if it goes on to become law, would put a measure on the November ballot that asks voters whether they want to give the Legislature that power.
The Hawaii Department of Education is the nation’s only statewide school district. It’s also the only state that doesn’t use property taxes to fund public schools.
The bill passed unanimously, but several lawmakers aired concerns about the wording of the ballot question. Some felt the tax should apply to all properties, not just investment properties. Others wanted voters to know exactly how much taxes would be raised.
“The question that’s been put before us is broad,” said Rep. Jarrett Keohokalole. “Maybe too broad for some of my colleagues … not broadly enough for some of our other colleagues, which in my opinion is fair.”
The House also unanimously passed Senate Bill 2990 to lay the groundwork for a paid family leave program. Many lawmakers worried about how such a law would impact business that would employ three people or less.
“I am an employer, I have this tiny business … I’m down to one (employee),” said Rep. Joy San Buenaventura. “Whatever money comes in the door pays for her wages.”
“Saving our reefs will be an uphill battle but I intend to fight to the last breath.” — Rep. Nicole Lowen
The House also passed bills to ban the sale of reef-killing sunscreen, require the state to factor rising sea levels into future plans, and prohibit bump stocks, or trigger modification devices that increase the rate of gunfire.
Rep. Nicole Lowen urged her colleagues in the House to support Senate Bill 2571 during the morning floor session. She said a multitude of products without coral-killing chemicals are already on the shelves of common stores and offer users SPF 30 or higher protection from the sun’s rays.
“Saving our reefs will be an uphill battle but I intend to fight to the last breath,” Lowen said.
The bill passed 46-5, sending it on to conference committee to work out the differences between the House and Senate versions.
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