It’s 5:40 p.m. on Friday, April 26, and time is ticking on the 2019 Hawaii Legislature.

In just 20 minutes, when the clock hits 6 p.m., scores of bills will die unless House and Senate conferees agree on a draft.

One of these, Senate Bill 1374, would set up a Hawaii Retirement Savings Program for private sector employees. It’s on death’s door, even though it passed both chambers unanimously earlier in the session.

Wearing their iconic red shirts and led by state director Barbara Kim Stanton, more than a dozen AARP Hawaii members occupy Conference Room 423 waiting for Sens. Brian Taniguchi, Sharon Moriwaki and Kurt Fevella and Reps. Aaron Ling Johanson, Sylvia Luke and Bob McDermott to vote on SB 1374.

AARP State Director Barbara Kim Stanton, in foreground at left, listens to state Sen. Brian Taniguchi explain why the Hawaii Saves bill did not pass. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

A vote never comes, though, and soon the clock runs out, as it does on every last day of conference committee at the Legislature unless leadership elects to go into overtime. Out of more than 3,000 bills introduced in January, barely 300 will cross the finish line by sine die.

Johanson and Taniguchi, the conferee chairs, gently try to explain to AARP that SB 1374 never received “release” from Luke, chair of the House Finance Committee, and Donovan Dela Cruz, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee — the money committees.

This happened even though Taniguchi, the bill’s author, told Johanson that the Senate was willing to accept the draft revised by the House. It’s a draft that leaves blank the amount of funding for the Hawaii Saves program, as it is called, and says the bill — should it become law — won’t go into effect until the year 2050 (which, I might note, is also when the 39-year old Johanson will have long reached the eligibility age to join AARP himself).

Blank dollar amounts and so-called defective dates are common elements of legislating at the Hawaii Legislature, a sort of poison pill to make sure lawmakers don’t accidentally pass bills. Taniguchi’s original bill called for funding Hawaii Saves with $300,000 over the next two fiscal years and for it to become law July 1.

‘Where Is Chair Luke?’

But AARP doesn’t want to talk about that, and Stanton, a veteran lobbyist, wants to know exactly what happened to the bill — and what comes next.

“So, what now?” Stanton asks Taniguchi and Johanson. “Because our volunteers would like to know.”

Johanson says the bill is in “closer form” and will come back next year, adding, “We need all chairs to agree.”

“So, where is Chair Luke?” Stanton asks and then states the obvious: “She’s not here.”

Johanson and Taniguchi explain that there is no WAM and FIN approval on SB 1374, seeming to suggest without actually saying it that there is no reason for Luke to be in Room 423 at 6 p.m. on the last day of conference committee because SB 1374 is dead.

“So, it’s going to be deferred until next year?” Stanton asks, already knowing the answer but wanting her members to hear it from the legislators themselves.

“Unfortunately, yeah,” Johnson replies.

Stanton groans.

“This is terrible,” she says.

Media Blitz

It’s not as if AARP did not work hard enough to call attention to SB 1374.

In addition to lobbying heavily for it all session long and submitting guest editorials to media, Craig Gima, the AARP’s communications director, issued no less than five media advisories in the days leading up to the April 26 deadline arguing for the bill’s merits but warning of its vulnerability. House leadership was blamed for “trying to kill the bill in secret,” as one advisory said.

Gima issued one more press release after SB 1374 died, too, again pinning the blame on the House.

“A similar Hawaii Saves bill died last year when the House, at the 11th hour, pulled their conferees from meeting,” it says. “Senate Bill 1374 had widespread support among small businesses, workers and taxpayers.”

AARP Hawaii lobbied for favored legislation at the Capitol on April 26. AARP Hawaii

The bill certainly had a lot of support including from the Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice and the Oahu County Democrats. But insurance and banking interests opposed SB 1374.

“This AARP plan has been introduced in approximately 30 states, most of which have rejected it,” Oren Chikamoto of the American Council of Life Insurers in Hawaii said in testimony. “It is an expensive employer mandate that requires the business owner to offer the state plans and automatically enrolled their workers. It also poses significant costs, risks, legal complexities and significant liabilities for the state and its private insurers.”

Asked why the bill died, House Speaker Scott Saiki told me the same thing Taniguchi and Johanson told AARP: The money chairs could not reach agreement.

Opponents of such bills are likely quite satisfied with such outcomes. Still, the last-minute collapse of bills with broad support happens all the time, leaving backers of bills deeply frustrated over their experience with the legislative experience.

Out of more than 3,000 bills introduced in January, barely 300 will cross the finish line by sine die.

“This is really disappointing,” Stanton told Taniguchi and Johanson that Friday. “Because people really worked hard with the petitions, sign-holding, calling people, and we had really good information provided. And I know the Senate had $400,000 going in this bill, and I know that in your first draft you had $150,000. We would think there would be something to reach a reasonable compromise.”

“And I think that that’s what so discouraging about the public process,” she continued, “that, all along, since January, you’re trying to find out how to have the public be heard. And to have it down to the wire like this, to lose on a technicality, or they’re not here, I think I’m speaking for the whole group that this is really disappointing. And so, I don’t know what else can be done.”

Taniguchi’s advice is that AARP try to talk Stanton out of retirement, a recognition that she has been very good at her job, SB 1374 to the contrary. That gets a few chuckles and nods. At least one AARP member says Stanton will be back anyway lobbying for important legislation.

And that means Stanton, Gima, AARP, legislators and me will probably be in Room 423 on the last Friday of April 2020 as the money chairs once again try to reach agreement — or not — on dozens of important bills lingering on life support.

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