Less than two months after a Circuit Court judge ruled that the practice of gutting bills and replacing them with entirely new content is constitutional, three bills were amended in that fashion by a state Senate committee Thursday.

That leaves the public with less than 24 hours to respond to the bills, which are scheduled to be heard Friday in the Ways and Means Committee chaired by Sen. Donavan Dela Cruz Friday morning.

The gut-and-replace tactic upsets Nancy Davlantes, president of the League of Women Voters of Honolulu, who is the plaintiff in the lawsuit.

“It is very concerning that the tactic continues apace in the current legislative session,” Davlantes said Thursday. “This ignores the constitution’s requirement that each bill receives three readings in each house on separate days.”

She added, “That we are only half-way through this session and are already seeing this does not bode well.”

Finance Chair Senator Donovan Dela Cruz asks OHA Ka Pouhana Kamanaopono Crabbe some questions during hearing.
State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz at a hearing last month. He is the architect of gutting and replacing bills this session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Senate spokesman Richard Rapoza said Dela Cruz could not be reached for comment.

The bills were amended at the request of Dela Cruz during floor session Thursday. He was granted permission to suspend Senate rules so that the three bills could be sent to his committee the next day.

He’s replacing Senate Bill 162, which originally called for providing taxpayers who hire an elderly person a nonrefundable tax credit. A new draft of the bill would instead raise the vehicle surcharge tax from $3 to $5 per day.

Dela Cruz told his colleagues new language would address concerns the attorney general had over rental vehicles in the state.

Senate Bill 166 was Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim’s $310 million request for disaster relief funds.

Dela Cruz will replace that with language, he said during the Senate session, to address 3,500 vacant positions in state government. The new bill will propose a recruitment modernization program to address competitive salaries, develop new recruitment methods and determine which state position classifications that are no longer needed.

Dela Cruz will also replace language in Senate Bill 656 to instead repeal audit requirements over rail. He told the Senate that he is concerned with recent federal subpoenas of the rail project.

SB 656 initially called for amending the definition of “aircraft” to include helicopters.

Last-Minute Switch

All three measures were moving through the Legislature in advance of a Friday deadline to remain alive. The bills now essentially no longer exist, although the language of the measures could be resurrected in other legislation later in the session.

It is also possible that other bills may address the same issues.

House Bill 1180, for instance, was approved by the House finance Committee on Feb. 21. It appropriates $60 million for disaster relief, recovery, mitigation and remediation for Hawaii County, a figure far less that what Kim requested.

It’s not clear how many more bills have been gutted and replaced this year. WAM will hear a fourth measure Friday, Senate Bill 816, which called for issuing general obligation bonds and funds for improvements to Hawaii Health Systems Corporation facilities.

“It is very concerning that the tactic continues apace in the current legislative session.” — Nancy Davlantes.

The new language mentions resolving the “compensation differential” for some union members caused by the transfer to private control of Maui Memorial Memorial Center and two community hospitals in 2018.

Earlier this month, House Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke gutted and replaced House Bill 118 to repeal the rail audit — a bill similar to the new version of Dela Cruz’s SB 656. It was Luke’s own bill, which in first draft required that the Senate president and House speaker be notified in writing when federal aid money comes to the state.

House and Senate leaders have strongly defended the gut-and-replace practice, arguing that it is a way to address legislative matters after deadlines for bills have passed. Judge Gary Chang ruled that the practice is constitutional because it follows the Legislature’s own written procedures.

But some senators and representatives have moved to end the practice.

“Gut-and-replace may be useful at times, but basic democratic principles including public involvement and fair process are more important by far,” Sen. Russell Ruderman told Civil Beat last month.

In the meantime, Davlantes and other members of good government groups say they won’t give up opposing gut and replace.

“We will continue to call attention to this practice, which deprives the public of any meaningful voice in the legislative process,” she said. “We just want legislators to know that we are watching.”

Common Cause and the League of Women Voters are appealing Chang’s ruling.

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