The Legislature began this year with big plans to make lives easier for Hawaii’s working class.

Instead, both chambers gaveled out the 2020 session Friday after scrambling to save what measures they could in the last several weeks. Still, the slate of bills that cleared the Legislature and are now headed to Gov. David Ige for his approval could have long lasting impacts on the environment and how Hawaii deals with its mental health crisis.

Lawmakers have sent the governor funding proposals that include about $600 million in federal relief funds that could go to covering rent as well as additional unemployment benefits that would otherwise run out at the end of July.

The Senate also got through several difficult confirmation hearings for two members of Ige’s Cabinet, one of whom the governor has decided to withdraw, Rona Suzuki, as tax director.

Senate President Ron Kouchi adjust his mask before the start of the floor session at the Captiol during COVID-19 era. June 26, 2020
The Legislature adjourned its 2020 session Friday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The House still plans to hold meetings on Hawaii’s economic recovery. And the Senate will host members of the administration Monday to drill down on Hawaii’s readiness to reopen to tourism Aug. 1.

The Senate also plans to reconvene in September to confirm state judges. It will also likely vet a candidate for the state Supreme Court sometime after election season.

Education Bills Clear Legislature

A legislative package at the beginning of session in January that would have raised the minimum wage, provided tax relief for working families and paved the way for more affordable housing all stalled after the pandemic struck Hawaii in March.

But the Legislature was still able to salvage two bills from that package. One is Senate Bill 3103, which would create a school facilities agency. The other is House Bill 2543, which sets up a framework for expanding preschool education in Hawaii.

The lone “no” vote in the 51-member House came from Rep. Amy Perruso, a former educator.

Her objections were over parts of the bill involving the Preschool Open Doors program administered by the Department of Human Services. That department lacks the expertise in providing educational programming that the Department of Education or the Executive Office of Early Learning could be better suited for, Perruso argued.

“It’s not an educational program,” Perruso said. “It doesn’t expand access to education, but it does provide access to child care.”

Rep Amy Perusso during mail in ballot hearing.
Rep. Amy Perruso objected to House Bill 2543 over how the bill would expand access to preschool programs. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti, who helped to put together the majority’s package, said the bill shows that the Legislature can get work done even in a pandemic.

“Child care or education, call it what you want, there’s really no difference in my mind,” she said.

Rep. Sylvia Luke, the House Finance chair who also supported the bill, recalled a recent conversation with Ige, who told her about plans to expand preschool programs in the state when he first joined the Legislature in the 1980s.

“We cannot let something that is temporary stop us from doing what we should have been doing 10, 20 years ago,” Luke said.

Aside from education measures, the House also passed House Bill 1620, which would set up a diversion program for nonviolent misdemeanants to get treatment for mental illness.

House Bill 1846, which would require new state buildings to implement energy efficiency measures, also cleared the House.

A Buffer Zone For Landfills

Landfill operators looking to expand their dump sites will have a harder time doing so if Senate Bill 2386 becomes law. The Senate passed the bill Friday, which prohibits a landfill from expanding into conservation zones.

Sen. Donna Mercado Kim was the only senator to vote against the measure.

It would also create a half-mile buffer around residences, schools and hospitals for the expansion of a landfill.

Sen. Kai Kahele said it could help to further the cause of environmental justice in rural communities with landfills, such as the Waianae Coast.

“Every community in Hawaii has a right to a healthy and healthful environment,” Kahele said.

The bill would make it harder for one private landfill, operated by the PVT Land Co., to expand. It could also mean the company has to shutter.

Senate Bill 2386 could make it difficult for landfills to find dump sites in the state. Courtesy: PVT Land Co.

The company’s owner, Stephen Joseph, testified that passing the bill could delay construction of a new Aloha Stadium because it would be unable to accept the amount of demolished materials coming from the stadium.

It would also stop the company from relocating its site, he said, and may impact all landfills in the state.

The bill was supported by labor unions, the Office of Hawaiian Affairs and the Association of Hawaiian Civic Clubs, among others.

The Senate also passed a few other bills of note, including a bill to strengthen Hawaii’s coastal management law, and a ban on coal burning.

Large Capacity Magazines, TNC Bills Die

In a demonstration of parliamentary maneuvering to kill several bills House leadership deemed problematic, House Speaker Scott Saiki deferred three bills for one legislative day. Two of them dealt with banning large capacity magazines, and regulating ride-hailing companies.

“So are you saying it’s dead without saying it’s dead?” House Minority Leader Gene Ward asked Saiki.

“Yes, that’s correct,” Saiki said, receiving some laughs from the chamber.

Asked about the bills at an afternoon press conference, Saiki said that a ban on rifle magazines larger than 10 rounds in House Bill 1902 was unenforceable because of a clause that grandfathered in cartridges that owners already possess.

HRA Gun Koko Head Range Shooting Sports Fair rifle magazines1. 19 june 2016
A bill to ban rifle magazines that hold more than 10 rounds died on the last day of session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“How do you prove something is grandfathered or not? It’s a big enforcement issue,” Saiki said.

As for House Bill 2002, which would regulate transportation network companies like Uber and Lyft, part of the problem was a section that specified drivers for those companies are independent contractors.

That’s been an issue in other states, which have passed laws to regulate TNCs like Uber and Lyft. Hawaii is the only state that doesn’t have a regulatory framework in place.

Belatti said defining what an independent contractor is could create problems with the labor department. She said the Legislature would take them up again in the future.

“Given the nature of the truncated session we have, these were bills that would have benefited from a conference committee,” Belatti said, referring to the normal end-of-session process of appointing members of the House and Senate to hash out the final versions of bills. “We just didn’t have the time.”

Proposed Vacancy Rule Struck Down

At the opening of the Senate’s floor session, Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald administered the oath of office to Bennette Misalucha, a former seed industry lobbyist whom Ige appointed to take the late Sen. Breene Harimoto’s seat.

The Senate on Friday also struck down a proposal that would allow other Pearl City representatives, like Rep. Gregg Takayama, to run for that seat this election season.

Senate Bill 2139 would’ve allowed candidates who already filed for one seat to file for another if a seat becomes vacant after the period to file nomination papers closes, typically in the first week of June.

Harimoto died June 18, and the bill had a clause that made it retroactive to the day before his death.

There was little discussion on the measure before 16 senators raised their hands to show they were voting “no.”

Those include Sens. Russell Ruderman, Dru Kanuha, Kurt Fevella, Sharon Moriwaki, Gil Riviere, Brian Taniguchi, Mike Gabbard, Donna Kim, Kai Kahele, Jarrett Keohokalole, J. Kalani English, Donovan Dela Cruz, Gil Keith-Agaran, Maile Shimabukuro and Glenn Wakai.

Tax Director Out, Budget Director In

The governor pulled back on his nomination for Rona Suzuki to lead the tax department. Ige’s office was busy Thursday counting votes in the Senate on her nomination, which faced some pushback by a Senate panel on Monday.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee was split on whether to recommend Suzuki to head the tax department. Much of the discussion Monday revolved around allegations from within the tax department as well as from tax professionals that Suzuki created a hostile work environment.

The nominee said Monday she wasn’t aware of those allegations. The senators were also concerned with Suzuki’s handling of the state’s $60 million tax modernization project, additional projects she’s taken on while tax director, and her qualifications to lead the tax department.

Because Ige pulled her nomination, Suzuki did not face a full vote by the 25-member Senate. He’s done the same in the past with nominees who were not likely to clear the vote.

Last year, for example, he pulled Jobie Masagatani’s name for consideration to chair the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

In a statement Friday, Ige said he was reluctant to withdraw Suzuki from the nomination process and noted his disagreement with the Senate.

Gov. David Ige withdrew his nomination for Rona Suzuki to head the tax department Friday. Screenshot: Hawaii Senate

During her tenure, the Dept. of Taxation experienced marked improvements in both operations and staff morale. While there, she successfully led the effort to modernize the tax collection system, which will benefit the state for many years to come,” Ige said.

Meanwhile, the governor’s pick to lead the Department of Budget and Finance easily cleared the Senate. Craig Hirai got all 25 votes confirming him to the post, a critical role in getting the state out of an impending budget crisis next year.

That vote stood in contrast to the concerns expressed by a Senate panel on Monday, which seemed unconvinced by Hirai’s ideas for digging the state out of a budget hole that is expected to total several billion dollars in the next two years.

Asked about Hirai’s confirmation vote on Friday, Kouchi said concerns over Hirai’s nomination as well as others were addressed.

“They were able to make the case about getting confirmed to their positions,” Kouchi said in an afternoon press conference.

Other nominees who faced a hard rub in the Senate were Damian Elefante, chair of the Hawaii Labor Relations Board, as well as Chris Yuen, a nominee to the land board.

Neither got recommendations from their respective Senate committees, and those senators tried to make the case against them.

In Elefante’s case, Senate Labor, Culture and the Arts Chair Brian Taniguchi said Elefante lacked the qualifications to head the labor board. Elefante still cleared the Senate with 16 “aye” votes and nine “no” votes.

The “nos” were Kouchi along with Sens. Karl Rhoads, Donna Kim, Stanley Chang, Taniguchi, Les Ihara, Roz Baker and Kahele.

Kahele, who is running to represent Hawaii’s 2nd Congressional District, led the charge against Yuen, the land board nominee.

“Now more than ever, we need a nominee, we deserve a nominee, that understands how to bring people together and manage natural resources,” Kahele said from the Senate floor.

Kahuku Turbines arrive with Senator Gil Riviere on Friday, October 18, 2019.
Sen. Gil Riviere, second from left, opposed Chris Yuen’s nomination to the state land board, in part due to Yuen’s support of the wind farm in Kahuku. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Yuen’s confirmation was opposed by the Senate Water and Land Committee, members of which all took issue with projects that were supported by Yuen but faced fierce community opposition.

For North Shore Sen. Gil Riviere, it was the wind farms in Kahuku and subsequent protests that led to over 200 arrests. 

For Ewa Beach Sen. Kurt Fevella, it was a proposal to clear a berm near Oneula Beach Park that would allow wastewater from nearby developments to rush into the ocean. Cultural practitioners have tried for years to revitalize limu growth in the area.

But Yuen also had support in the Senate as well as those in the public. Sen. Lorraine Inouye cited other issues in the islands in which Yuen sided with the environmentalists, such as a master plan for how Haena State Park can better manage tourists.

“As legislators, we know we all must make difficult decisions,” Inouye said. “Either way you vote there will be a group of people who disagrees with you.”

Yuen cleared the Senate in a 16-9 vote.

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