This could be the year the Hawaii Legislature gets serious about a bill to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana.

While its passage and Gov. David Ige’s signature are far from certain, key state lawmakers say the stars could finally align for an issue that has never gotten much traction in previous legislative sessions.

What’s changed is that recreational marijuana is now legal in 10 states and the District of Columbia, and it’s generating big revenue for state coffers. But pot remains illegal at the federal level and local law enforcement has generally opposed legalization.

Another issue that has been debated frequently — raising the minimum wage — is expected to be brought up again at the Legislature, and it has a more promising path than pot. The last increase was a year ago, when the hourly wage was increased to $10.10. Advocates are now pushing to go as high as $17 — a “living” wage, as it is described, which would be a hard sell to businesses.

Capitol with fisheye lens. 2019.
All eyes will be on the state Capitol when lawmakers convene Wednesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

If the wage is raised, the increase will likely be phased in, as has been done before in Hawaii and other states. Massachusetts, for example, will increase its minimum wage in increments from $12 to $15 by 2023, while New York’s wage of $11.10 will be adjusted annually for inflation starting in 2021 until it reaches $15.

Statewide all-mail voting and disaster relief funding are also priorities, along with perennial issues like more funding for public schools, mitigating homelessness, providing affordable housing, moving the state to energy and food sustainability and helping residents with the state’s high cost of living.

And there is always the possibility of surprise legislation that upends the session.

More details will emerge starting Wednesday when House and Senate leaders open the 2019 session by outlining their visions. Here’s a preview of some of what’s to come.

Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English said that the minimum wage “has always been at issue” at the Legislature. He expects his chamber to once again take up the issue, but called for reconciliation between the various stakeholders.

“Small and medium-sized business have a hard time doing that,” he said, referring to the burden wage increases impose on employers. “We have got to find a way so that they can survive and our people too.”

House Harassment Policy presser Speaker Scott Saiki flanked by Rep Della Au Bellatti.
Speaker Scott Saiki and Rep. Della Au Belatti at a press conference Monday. Saiki anticipates an increase in the minimum wage. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

House Speaker Scott Saiki said it is “appropriate” for lawmakers to raise the wage again. But he pointed out that Hawaii businesses face costs not imposed in other states, including providing health care and paying for temporary disability insurance.

“Those costs do not show up in a paycheck, so we have to heed those concerns,” Saiki said.

The pressure to hike the minimum wage comes from the Democratic Party of Hawaii, which has identified a living wage, legalizing recreational use of cannabis and increasing funding for public education as top-tier priorities.

The Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice is also advocating for a minimum wage increase. It’s slated to launch its campaign Thursday at the Capitol.

Another group, Raise Up Hawaii, is also pushing for the wage hike, along with former lawmakers such as Gary Hooser.

Sen. Karl Rhoads, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, thinks 2019 could be the year for legislation to legalize or decriminalize pakalolo.

“I think the building is behind the electorate on this one,” he said, “I would not at all be surprised if it passes this year.”

Rhoads, who said that he personally would never use marijuana because “it’s not good for you,” said there are a combination of factors making the issue ripe for legislative action.

“In the states where it’s up and running the sky has not collapsed,” he said. “It’s partly about money and because most people think smoking a joint is no worse than having a beer.”

Senator Karl Rhoads with Chair Brian Taniguchi after voting on measure.
Sen. Karl Rhoads at a 2018 legislative hearing. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if recreational use of marijuana is legalized this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Recreational pot is also widely available now, albeit illegally. Rhoads would like to see it taxed and regulated.

English was more cautious, noting that marijuana bills have surfaced in almost every one of his nearly 20 years in the Legislature.

“We always say, ‘This might be the year,’” he said, adding that Hawaii can be ahead of the curve on controversial issues that eventually become mainstream.

“Same-sex marriage, for example, or medical marijuana,” said English.

“But it took a long time for us to do anything,” he said in reference to the many years that passed after medical marijuana was legalized before dispensaries were allowed to open, and how same-sex marriage legislation similarly took a long time in becoming a legislative reality.

On the House side, Saiki agreed there will be marijuana legislation, but was unsure of its specifics.

“I am not sure if medical marijuana has been fully implemented yet, and we may need to consider all of the federal restrictions that affect marijuana,” he said.

It was the Legislature that wrote the 2018 constitutional amendment question that would have allowed the state to tax property in support of public education.

After the Hawaii Supreme Court invalidated it because of vague wording, the governor, opponents and supporters of the ConAm pledged to find a way to help schools anyway. In his second inaugural address last month, Ige said that the state is “implementing a new blueprint for public education, empowering schools and investing in educational leaders who can transform the way they teach their students.”

HSTA staff and teachers jubilate after the Senate passed a key vote today to ask voters to decide this fall whether the statehould be empowered to impose a surcharge on residential investment properties to help fund public education. Constitutional Amendment.
Teachers union members celebrated when the Legislature placed a constitutional amendment on the ballot last year to raise more money for public schools, but it was later invalidated by the Supreme Court. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The governor’s proposed two-year budget calls for around $400 million for infrastructure improvements at schools and more than $20 million to renovate pre-kindergarten classrooms and help with school repair and maintenance.

But last week House Budget and Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke said that lawmakers had been lied to by officials when it comes to the Department of Education’s backlog of repair and maintenance. Instead of being $293 million, it is $850 million.

Revelations like that have legislative leaders like Saiki and English calling for greater oversight of how the DOE spends its roughly $2 billion annual budget. The Hawaii State Teachers Association, the primary backer of the ConAm, said at least several hundred million dollars more is needed to improve schools and pay teachers better.

“We want more transparency, measurable outcomes and evidence of how the DOE is actually improving education,” said English, who described the current education system as antiquated.

“We really need to have an understanding of how funds are being spent at DOE,” said Saiki.

Rhoads said there is “a really good chance” that all-mail voting will soon be expanded statewide.

“You never know, but there is quite a lot of interest,” he said. “I think it is very likely to pass both chambers. I think there is the will to do it.”

All-mail voting is cheaper, more convenient and appears to have improved turnout in some mainland states that use it. Voters could still have the option of voting in person at a limited number of polling places.

Corie Tanida will be focusing on voting reforms. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

“I have always supported mail voting on a statewide level, if anything for practical reasons,” said Saiki. “It is increasingly difficult for the Elections Office and city and county clerks to recruit election day workers at polling places.”

An all-mail voting pilot program is set to go into effect in Kauai County in 2020, and a report on how it all works out (or doesn’t) would then go to the Legislature. Rhoads expects that 2022 might be the year for a statewide system.

When it comes to voting reforms, one person to watch at the Capitol is Corie Tanida, formerly of Common Cause Hawaii. She is now with the Center for Secure and Modern Elections, and her focus will include automatic voter registration, among other voting reforms.

Common Cause and the League of Women Voters lobbied for several years before a mail-in voting measure finally became law in 2018, setting up the Kauai pilot program.

When rains and floods soaked parts of Kauai and Oahu last spring, the Legislature responded quickly. In April the House Finance and Senate Ways and Means committees appropriated $125 million to make road, bridge and other infrastructure repairs “for the stricken communities,” as a Senate press release put it.

This week, Hawaii County Harry Kim said he would ask the Legislature for a “lava relief package, a $155 million ask over two years,” the Hawaii Tribune-Herald reported. The money would go to a “state disaster recovery coordinator’s office, housing assistance, air quality and mental health assistance, an agricultural revolving loan program and other initiatives.”

Lava crosses a road in Puna last May. Now Hawaii Island Mayor Harry Kim is seeking a “lava relief package” from the Legislature. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat

Saiki said that while the Legislature wants to help the counties, he had not seen Kim’s request Wednesday.

English said the Legislature would look this session at disaster relief on a statewide basis. Any appropriation would take into consideration the amount of money that comes from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. He pointed out that his own district includes Hana on Maui, where there is only one narrow road in and out that is subject to frequent landslides.

But English is also taking a longer view toward rising sea levels and stronger storms in the years ahead. He’d like to see the state and counties better prepared in advance to deal with problems like the thousands of people who were displaced on Kauai and the Big Island last year by the disasters.

Last session, a Senate resolution adopted the United Nations’ 17 sustainable development goals. They include action on climate change, infrastructure and what is termed “life below water” and “life on land.”

English said the goals help form a framework for Senate legislation.

“We need to be prepared,” he said. “We stand on our own in disasters.”

The Republicans

The five House Republicans will introduce a minority package that Minority Leader Gene Ward said is focused on kamaaina — allowing those who live here to afford to continue living here, and to entice those who have moved away to move back.

The ideas include:

  • eliminating the general excise tax on food, medical services and feminine hygiene products;
  • providing matching funds for medical residency programs;
  • expanding funding for the DOE to support vocational training;
  • helping returning college graduates with down payments on homes; and
  • redirecting funds for the Art in Public Places program to classrooms.
Rep Gene Ward and right Shirlene Ostrov at Charlie Kirk talk UH Manoa.
Rep. Gene Ward and state GOP Chair Shirlene Ostrov at UH Manoa. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Ward, who as a Republican is against tax increases, said the revenue would come from a proposed tax on real estate investment trusts.

Kurt Fevella, the new and only GOP senator, has legislative priorities too. They include building a girls locker room at Campbell High School.

Last month, a federal class action lawsuit against the Hawaii Department of Education was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii over gender inequities for female athletes at Campbell, the state’s most populous high school.

The Governor

A big key to a successful session is striking agreement on the state budget and getting Ige’s support for legislation. He will deliver his state of the state address Jan. 22, the same day the administration’s bill package is due.

The governor’s cabinet directors and appointments also require Senate confirmation.

How are relations between the executive and legislative branches?

Governor David Ige gestures during press conference announcing his administration’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
Gov. David Ige at a press conference last month announcing his budget for the upcoming fiscal years. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

English, the Senate majority leader, said, “I get along very well with the governor. I am pragmatic, and I think Senate leadership is pragmatic.”

English said he talks to the governor and his department heads regularly and noted an Ige ally, Sen. Les Ihara, is the Senate majority policy leader.

Saiki, the House speaker, expressed hope that it would be easier for the Legislature to work with the administration once all his Cabinet appointments are in place.

He said it has been frustrating trying to figure out who is in charge of the governor’s office, something that Luke noted in a briefing last week. Saiki pointed out that Ige has both a chief of staff, Mike McCartney, and an administrative director, Ford Fuchigami.

“You can’t bifurcate at that level,” Saiki said. “You have to have one person in charge.”

Saiki added, “Hopefully it will be easier to deal with this administration, to work with them, because we will eventually get to a point where we can agree to disagree on policy issues and to keep personality out of it.”

Ige issued a statement Wednesday saying, “I am excited about starting my second term as governor, and I look forward to working with the Legislature. My administration is focused on the priorities of our community and I feel confident that, as we present our budget and administrative proposals, our Legislature will see the value in our vision.”

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