- Special Projects
A list of endangered bills that once appeared assured of passage is circulating around the Hawaii Legislature — essentially a hit list of bills backed by senators who voted last week against taxing the revenues from short-term vacation rentals.
A legislative maneuver could force senators to vote again on the so-called Airbnb bill Tuesday, even though it was killed in dramatic fashion Friday night. This time, the fate of 15 other measures, which cover issues ranging from creating new oversight for the Department of Public Safety to burial grants for Filipino American World War II veterans, hangs in the balance.
The bills singled out for review have been passed by their respective committees and are awaiting a final vote Tuesday. Most are either authored by or important to senators who voted against Senate Bill 1292 known as the Airbnb bill.
Short-term rentals of less than 30 days are generally illegal in the state and many owners are operating them outside the law without paying taxes. Many lawmakers are eager to tap into that money stream.
If the bills are forced back to their respective committees — a procedure known as recommital — they would be killed for this session, which ends Thursday.
The senator leading the charge to resurrect SB 1292 is Donovan Dela Cruz, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. He came out in strong support of the bill Friday night, warning his colleagues that highly sought legislation could be jeopardized if they did not vote for the bill, which would give the state an estimated $46 million in annual revenue.
On Sunday, in an interview with Civil Beat, Dela Cruz underscored his view that the bill’s defeat would mean less revenue for the state, and that if individual senators did not reverse their positions on the bill, other measures that cost money would need to be eliminated.
“If you want to cut bills, you can cut bills,” Dela Cruz said. “If you want to keep bills, you need 1292.”
SB 1292 would require operators of short-term rentals to pay transient accommodation and general excise taxes, with hosting platforms like Airbnb and HomeAway acting as tax collectors on behalf of the state. The information collected, including the names and addresses of short-term rental proprietors, would be kept confidential.
As the measure moved through the House and Senate, enforcement measures that would have made it easier to track and control the growth of short-term rentals were stripped from the bill.
The vote Friday night exposed widespread discomfort with the Airbnb bill. Of the 12 who voted for it, four voiced their support as “aye with reservations,” indicating they did not wholeheartedly endorse it. They included Sens. Mike Gabbard, Dru Kanuha, Maile Shimabukuro and Brian Taniguchi.
The eight senators who gave the measure their full support were Dela Cruz, Roz Baker, J. Kalani English, Lorraine Inouye, Gil Keith-Agaran, Michelle Kidani, Ronald Kouchi and Glenn Wakai.
Opponents included Gil Riviere, Stanley Chang, Breene Harimoto, Les Ihara, Kai Kahele, Jarrett Keohokalole, Donna Mercado Kim, Sharon Moriwaki, Clarence Nishihara, Karl Rhoads and Laura Thielen.
Sen. Kurt Fevella had voted against the bill on Thursday but was ill Friday night and did not vote. On Monday, his legislative assistant, Kayla Whitley, said he intended to vote the bill down.
“The senator’s position is no,” she said.
That means that 13 senators are on record as opposed to the measure, four are reluctantly in support and eight are full supporters.
But now some senators are dealing with the uncomfortable knowledge that the vote they took last week could have negative implications for them. There is a legislative option to induce a recount. If one of the senators who voted no were to seek a motion to reconsider the vote, something that could happen during the floor session Tuesday, the issue could be forced into a do-over.
It would not require the standard 48-hour notice for votes on bills, meaning the re-vote could be done right away.
On the floor on Friday night, Dela Cruz specifically mentioned that funding for burial grants for Filipino-American World War II veterans could be placed at risk.
The top item on the list circulating around the Legislature is SB 1417, which would provide burial funding for Filipino-American World War II veterans. Its primary sponsor in the Senate is Kim, who is part Filipino, and who voted against the Airbnb bill.
Among the bills on the list of at-risk measures were some items championed by senators who voted against the Airbnb tax bill Friday night:
House Bill 1068, which provides money to create a long-range plan for Heeia State Park, a measure sought on the Senate side by Riviere, Fevella and Kim, who all expressed opposition to the Airbnb bill.
Senate Bill 1314, which would provide a high-tech tax credit, and had been sought by Keohokalole, who voted against the bill.
House Bill 1552, a bill that would create new oversight of the state’s troubled Department of Public Safety, strongly supported by Nishihara, who voted against the Airbnb bill. On Friday afternoon, Nishihara was so confident of the bill’s passage that he posed for pictures with Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald celebrating it.
Popular housing-related bills on the list include House Bill 257 and Senate Bill 471, (whose sponsors include Ruderman, Chang, Harimoto, Rhoads and Riviere), which both provide money for homeless programs and Senate Bill 9, which provides money for fixing damaged low-income rental units. SB 9 had been sponsored by Chang, Harimoto, Kanuha, Kidani, Nishihara, Fevella, Moriwaki and Shimabukuro, five of whom had voted no on SB 1292.
Other bills on the list whose funding is reportedly at risk is Senate Bill 33, which raises the tax credit for movie production from $35 million to $50 million; House Bill 843, which adds three new technical education positions at Hawaii Community College; House Bill 654, which appropriates money for a study of liver and bile duct cancer at the Hawaii Cancer Center; House Bill 1547, which appropriates money for student athletes at the University of Hawaii; House Bill 942, which appropriates money for claims against the state, and House Bill 1548, which addresses rapid ohia death.
In the interview on Sunday, Dela Cruz indicated he was less than enthusiastic about the Airbnb bill himself but that he believes the money is needed by the state. He said the vote came up so late in the session that there are few options remaining to cut expenditures.
“This is not easy, balancing the budget,” he said. “Revenues are down and collective bargaining needs to be paid and members have different priorities.”
He said the mistake was that negotiations on the bill had been left until too late in the session to resolve them, something he blamed on delays caused by unsuccessful efforts by some legislators to negotiate stronger enforcement methods into the bill. He conceded that some legislators who lose favored programs in the waning days of the session will be unhappy.
“Some of them will feel like they are being punished but it’s a matter of money,” he said.
During a crisis like this, it’s more important than ever to dig beyond the news, to figure out what government policies mean for ordinary citizens and how those policies were put together.
For the first time, Civil Beat has become a seven-days-per-week news operation, publishing new stories and a new edition each Saturday and Sunday as well as weekdays.
This is perhaps the biggest, most consequential story our reporters will ever cover. And at no other time in Civil Beat’s history have we relied on your support more. Please consider supporting Civil Beat by making a tax-deductible gift.