Ask House Speaker Scott Saiki how this year’s legislative session went and he’d probably say swimmingly. Ask Senate President Ron Kouchi, however, and he’d compare his chamber to a canoe, with paddlers all stroking the water in different directions.

“It’s been incredibly difficult,” Kouchi said from his lectern Thursday, moments before the Senate adjourned its 2019 session. 

He said the Senate, where 24 of 25 members are Democrats, were deeply divided on some major issues. “Clearly everybody feels like everybody’s paddling in a different direction,” he said.

The disparate reactions by the Legislature’s leaders as session closed on Thursday highlighted the divide between how the two chambers approached some of Hawaii’s most pressing issues like minimum wage and taxing illegal vacation rentals in the last days of the legislative session.

Senate President Ron Kouchi during last day of session.
Senate President Ron Kouchi presides over the Senate’s last session before adjournment Thursday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Kouchi’s statements before the close of session also topped off a tense several weeks for the Senate that saw itself at odds over several high-profile gubernatorial nominations, and most recently, a vote to tax vacation rentals that split the Senate.

The House forced the Senate’s hand on Senate Bill 1292 by refusing to negotiate during conference committees.

A Different Way Of Doing Business

Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English took issue with the House’s inactions on several measures during conference committees. Typically, the House and Senate send negotiating teams to talk over their differences on bills in the last two weeks before the end of the session.

But the House didn’t send negotiators to the table on several measures.

“We understand you may not like the bill, but you passed a version, now come and negotiate your version,” English said. “At least show up. If negotiations fail, they fail. But at least we tried.”

SB 1292, the bill to tax illegal vacation rentals, was one of those bills. The House did not come to the table on that bill or a similar one, House Bill 419, forcing the Senate to take the House’s position on SB 1292.

House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke told reporters Thursday morning that the House’s draft of SB 1292 had language backed by the state Department of Taxation, and that it’s up to the counties now to find the illegal vacation rentals.

The Senate wanted stricter enforcement by the state over hosting platforms like Airbnb and HomeAway along with potential tax revenue of $46 million a year that could come with it. The current version of SB 1292 would still collect the tax revenue, but makes the hosting platforms the tax collector, effectively shielding the location of the rentals.

Senator J Kalani English post session press conference.
Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English speaks to reporters after the Legislature adjourned Thursday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“The theory is, a half loaf of bread is better than no loaf of bread,” English said regarding the Senate’s concession to the House.

The take-it-or-leave-it tactics also worked on SB 78, a catch-all measure that keeps the administrative authority of state-funded pre-K under the Executive Office of Early Learning, sustains funding for 18 existing public charter school pre-K classrooms, adds funding for 10 new public pre-K classrooms and provides more than $10 million in appropriations to DOE programs like its Early College program.

The House refused to negotiate, and with an April 25 deadline looming, the Senate took the House’s draft.

While the Senate faced several major bumps in the road since January, English said that this has been one of the smoother sessions he’s seen.

“Overall, I think we’re ending on a nice note. Everyone’s not too happy and not too sad,” English said.

The two chambers were also able to find compromise on a number of measures that Saiki highlighted Thursday including all-mail voting, decriminalizing a small amount of pakalolo and implementing criminal justice reform.

Saiki also touted the House’s lead on implementing the state’s zero-based budget system, an effort to drill down into how and where state departments spend their money.

Kouchi struck a more somber tone in his closing remarks to the Senate, saying that, while the senators may share vast differences, they all “ran to make a difference, to make a better Hawaii.”

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