Bills increasing Hawaii’s minimum wage, decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, enacting all-mail elections statewide and requiring the state to license midwives advanced at the Legislature on Tuesday.

Several hundred bills were approved in the House of Representatives and the Senate.

What was not voted on, however, was a bill to grant land company Alexander & Baldwin and others a seven-year extension to divert public waters in East Maui and elsewhere. House Bill 1326 could still be voted on by the Senate, but nothing has been scheduled.

Thursday is the “second crossover” deadline for measures to remain alive this session, which concludes May 2.

The Senate gallery Tuesday was filled with supporters of a minimum wage increase and opponents of a water rights bill. Chad Blair/Civil Beat/2019

Many of the bills that are moving will likely need further work in the two-week conference committee period that begins Monday. That’s where conferees of both chambers try to iron out their differences on amended legislation.

By this point in the session, many bills have already failed to gain traction, while others still await votes.

Among the bills that have died are ones that would have prohibited motor scooters on the pathway between the Capitol and Iolani Palace, required the release of the identities of inmates who die in jails or prison, and created an independent authority to oversee the state’s airports.

But a bill taxing real estate investment trusts appears ready to go to conference committee. Same goes for legislation requiring the disclosure of the names of suspended or discharged police officers, and a bill creating an oversight commission for the state’s correctional facilities.

Two Minimum Wage Bills

Senators unanimously approved House Bill 1191  to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2023 and to $17 an hour for full-time workers employed by the state. It would also provide an income tax credit to help small businesses impacted by the wage hike.

Sen. Russell Ruderman, a Big Island businessman, told his colleagues that he hoped the wage would grow even higher.

The issue is now headed for conference committee, because the House passed another minimum wage bill with no details as to how much and when it would increase.

Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson speaks in support of a minimum wage increase Tuesday. Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat

A previous version of Senate Bill 789 would have raised the wage to $15 an hour by 2024. But the version the House passed now has blank dollar amounts.

The new version also creates a separate schedule of minimum wage increases for employers that are not required to provide health coverage for part-time workers but still do. But those dollar amounts are blank as well.

The bill also bans employers from paying people with disabilities less than the minimum wage.

SB 789 passed the House on a 42 to 9 vote with representatives Lynn Decoite, Sharon Har, Sam Kong, Sean Quinlan, Calvin Say, James Tokioka, Val Okimoto, Cabanilla Arakawa and Gene Ward voting “no.”

Some opponents cited concerns that a minimum wage increase would adversely impact small businesses. The current measure lacks a tax credit for small businesses that previous versions included.

Rep. Lynn DeCoite was one of nine representatives voting against raising the minimum wage. Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat

“We are not a business friendly state,” DeCoite said, later adding that businesses should determine who is worthy of receiving higher pay.

Others worried over how the proposed two tiers of minimum wage increases would play out.

Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, who supported the measure, said on the House floor that the amendments could help defray Hawaii’s high costs of living and doing business.

Johanson, who chairs the House Labor Committee, added the health care and disability provisions in March.

“This is a multifaceted problem that takes a multifaceted solution,” Johanson said.

Licensing Midwives

Senate Bill 1033 would require midwives to obtain a license by 2020. Similar measures have failed in past sessions.

The measure has been contentious in recent sessions, and it was again on the House floor Tuesday.

Rep. Gene Ward, one of six Republicans in the 51-member chamber dominated by Democrats, opposed the bill. He said regulating midwives would be governmental overreach and that the bill doesn’t offer a clear path to licensure.

Rep. Gene Ward said Tuesday that requiring midwives to be licensed would be governmental overreach. Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat

Several lawmakers shared anecdotal stories they heard or even experienced involving malpractice by midwives.

Rep. Chris Lee recounted the story of an obstetrician he knew who had to tend to a pregnant mother who was hemorrhaging after she was treated by a midwife.

“How many dead babies, how many dead mothers does it take to change things?” Lee said.

Ward criticized proponents’ use of anecdotes, as well as the apparent lack of in-state data regarding midwifery.

Rep. Ty Cullen, citing national data, said death rates are higher in states that don’t license midwives.

A 2009 study of 1,000 births by Canadian researchers found that at-home deliveries could be just as safe as those in hospitals if the midwife performing the birth was credentialed.

There was also concern that the bill could sweep cultural practitioners into its regulations. House lawmakers previously amended the bill to create different measures to regulate those types of birth attendants by 2023.

The bill would also create a legislative task force to study at-home births.

Supporters say regulating midwives is no different than doing so with any other medical practice.

“Ultimately, I feel very strongly that whenever we have issues that touch on health services, I think licensure is importation,” said Rep. Dan Holt.

Taxing Vacation Rentals

Lawmakers eager to gather tax revenue from the state’s flourishing, yet mostly unpermitted, vacation rental sector passed legislation that would require websites like Airbnb to collect and pay taxes on behalf of short-term rental hosts.

The House and Senate approved separate bills. Attempts to enact similar measures have failed in past years, but lawmakers said they believe they have a better chance of succeeding this time.

Many Hawaii vacation rentals are operated illegally, making tax collection challenging. The transient accommodations and general excise taxes the short-term rental operators must pay are levied by the state.

Rep. Richard Onishi, chair of the House Tourism and International Affairs Committee, said the four counties are making progress in crafting laws and rules to better regulate vacation rentals. The state’s role, he said, is to make sure government is getting its tax revenue.

“We’re trying to capture the taxes from people that are doing the business in Hawaii, which is the state’s responsibility,” said Onishi.

Voting Reforms Still Alive

State representatives also voted to move forward with several voting measures, including automatic recounts and ranked choice voting for some primary races.

Senate Bill 216 would require an automatic recount in races where the margin of victory is less than 0.5 percent or 100 votes. The measure received little attention on the House floor Tuesday, and it cleared both chambers with almost no opposition.

The House had made minor changes to the bill April 3. If the Senate agrees with the changes, the bill could soon go to Gov. David Ige to be signed. The Senate, meanwhile, approved a proposed constitutional amendment in support of the vote recount requirement.

Ranked Choice voting also still has a chance. Senate Bill 427 would enact the voting system for special federal elections and vacant county council seats.

The House also passed Senate Bill 412 and the Senate passed House Bill 1485, both of which would automatically register anyone to vote who applies for a driver’s license. 

In the Senate, 23 of the chamber’s 24 Democrats (Michelle Kidani was absent) approved a bill enacting all-mail balloting statewide by 2022. There would still be voter service centers to allow for walk-in voting and to help voters with special needs.

Senate Bill 1248 also calls for the state Office of Elections to publish and distribute voting pamphlets. Kurt Favella, the only Republican in the Senate, voted “no” on the legislation.

But another election-reform bill, requiring candidates for U.S. president and vice president to make public their tax returns, was rejected in the Senate.

Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole complained that, because House Bill 712 would also require candidates for governor, lieutenant governor and county mayors to disclose their tax returns, it might discourage some people from running. Keohokalole said it could have a “chilling effect.”

HB 712 died in a 15 to 10 vote.

Water Rights Bill Stopped For Now

It’s uncertain if HB 1326 will ever be heard in the full Senate, but the visitor gallery was filled with many opponents of the bill who argue it unfairly favors the land company Alexander & Baldwin.

In his brief introductory remarks, Ruderman told his colleagues he hoped they would keep in mind the title of a Spike Lee film.

“Do the right thing,” he said, generating whoops and applause from the gallery.

Outside in the Rotunda, protesters could be heard chanting, “Hey, hey, ho ho, corporate greed has got to go.” Some held signs stating “You can’t sell what you don’t own — Ola i ka wai.”

Many people at the Capitol wore stickers opposing the water bill. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

That translates as “water is life” in Hawaiian.

At the end of the Tuesday floor session, Senate President Ron Kouchi addressed reports that House leaders are pressing Senate leaders to bring HB 1326 to the floor for a vote, even though it died at the committee level last Thursday.

“I want to speak for the record to the members of the Senate that I received no communication from the speaker to exert pressure on myself on scheduling of this bill or any other matter related to this bill,” Kouchi said. “And I am disappointed that that would be speculated about without better confirmation of the facts.”

With that the Senate adjourned, causing some in the gallery to boo and at least one to proclaim, “Do your job!”

Afterwards, the Sierra Club of Hawaii and others who oppose HB 1326 exulted in their temporary victory but promised to keep a close eye on developments.

“We have collectively kicked A&B out of the Capitol,” said Sierra Club director Marti Townsend.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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