Hawaii could be poised to regulate illegal short-term vacation rentals that have been irksome for many of the state’s neighborhoods.

A measure that lets the four counties set up a registry for those rentals is among dozens of bills that won preliminary approval in the Legislature by Thursday, the deadline for all bills to clear their final committees. 

Final votes are expected next week on all of those measures, which include bills to reform police departments, establish an industrial hemp program and tighten gun laws.

The Legislature is set to end its 2020 session, which began in January, on July 10.

Legislature 2020 opening day Senate press conference with Senate President Kouchi and Majority Leader J Kalani English.
Lawmakers will consider dozens of bills that cleared a key deadline Thursday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Since the start of the year, scores of key proposals, like those to raise minimum wage, have died. Instead, much of the focus in the past two weeks has been on quickly passing pieces of legislation to help deal with the global coronavirus pandemic or bills that could easily be agreed upon by both chambers.

House Bill 460 would add a new section into state law that gives counties the express authority to regulate short-term vacation rentals, like those found on websites such as Airbnb and VRBO.

It was among a trio of measures proposed by Attorney General Clare Connors. The Senate took some of those proposals and injected them into bills waiting in committees.

Regulating short-term rentals is largely left up to each county. The law would help to standardize some of the regulatory language.

The bill would allow counties to set up registries of legal vacation rentals. It would also allow the counties to block any reservations made through websites like Airbnb if the rental property is not listed in the county registries.

Last session, a bill split the Senate. That bill would have set up a tax scheme for the rentals but would have largely left aside any regulatory teeth. That measure was ultimately vetoed by Gov. David Ige.

HB 460 was put forward by Connors. It’s supported by the planning departments of the City and County of Honolulu, Maui County and Hawaii County.

Michael Yee, the Hawaii County planning director, said in testimony to lawmakers that there could be an estimated 4,000 illegal vacation rentals on the Big island.

The bill is opposed by numerous rental owners, many of whom say they have legal, registered vacation rentals in the state and also pay their taxes. Some claim the public registry is an invasion of their privacy.

The vacation rental issue was renewed in the Senate in the past few months after it was identified as a loophole to get around the mandatory 14-day quarantine for visitors coming to the state.

Airbnb, which opposes the measure, has separately been working on agreements with each county to get their rentals in compliance with local regulations. On Kauai, the company plans to drop listings for illegal rentals.

Airbnb cites the same privacy concerns as the rental owners and also raised questions over how the bill could impact the local economy.

Vaping Ban

The Senate Ways and Means and Judiciary committees gave preliminary approval for a ban on flavored electronic cigarette liquids. House Bill 2457 would in effect ban vaping in the islands.

If passed, the law would go into effect Sept. 1.

Similar measures have been pushed for by the chairs of both chambers’ health committees, but have stalled in the past. There’s been heavy lobbying on both sides of the issue in the past two sessions.

Tobacco companies have won the money battle. Several large tobacco companies, which also own stakes in e-cig manufacturers, have spent upwards of $1 million lobbying on the issue since 2012.

But businesses that sell vaping products have also opposed the ban. Some worry this would force them to close their business.

Vape Hawaii sign Vape shop.
Vape shop owners worry a bill advancing in the Legislature will mean the end of their business. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“Our small businesses are extremely hurting as it is, we do not need our own legislators to hurt us and put us out of business,” Mariner Revell, owner of Irie Hawaii Stores, wrote to lawmakers.

But advocates for vaping bans have also relied on media campaigns. 

The Tobacco Free Kids Action Fund has television ads running through Sunday on cable television, according to contracts filed with the Federal Communications Commission.

Even if the bill clears the Senate next week, it must still clear a final vote in the House, where previous vaping measures have died.

The Legislature is also expected to vote on a measure that could give Health Director Bruce Anderson the power to declare a public health emergency.

House Bill 2502 would allow the health director to issue emergency declarations for a period of 90 days. It would also put into law much of the quarantine rules set up under Ige’s emergency orders.

Police Reform And Gun Regulations

One bill that won’t make it this session would have required officers to intervene in instances of other officers using excessive force. The Senate Public Safety, Intergovernmental and Military Affairs Committee plugged those provisions into House Bill 1278.

Requiring officers to intervene in those situations was an idea the House had in discussions surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement. However, the bill didn’t get a hearing by a key Senate committee by Thursday.

But other police reform bills did survive.

Lawmakers are set to vote next week on House Bill 285, which would make police disciplinary records public. The bill would also give the Law Enforcement Standards Board a new deadline to come up with a certification process for law enforcement.

HPD Chief of Police Susan Ballard at the police commission meeting.
Measures to bring more transparency to police departments and tighten gun laws are also advancing. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The Legislature is also following through on a promise to tighten Hawaii’s already tough gun laws. Those measures have been spurred through the Legislature in the wake of a January shooting that left two police officers dead.

House Bill 1902 would ban magazines larger than 10 rounds. Opponents of the bill and gun rights activists have argued that the limit could make it hard to actually get magazines for certain rifles.

House Bill 2744 already cleared the Senate and awaits final approval by the House. It would make it illegal to purchase or build a firearm with certain parts that don’t have serial numbers. It’s meant to be a ban on at-home gun kits.

And in other legal matters, taxpayers will be on the hook for $2 million worth of settlements brought on by lawsuits against the state. Those include payments for the death of a teen in a scooter crash as well as a student’s near drowning. 

In March, the bill was closer to $1 million, but the AG’s office had to tack on more settlements to Senate Bill 2844 since then.

One of the largest includes a $350,000 settlement to the mother of an inmate who needed brain surgery after striking his head in a holding cell at the Wailuku Courthouse. He required brain surgery.

“Plaintiff’s mother claims that she was impacted emotionally and nearly lost her job, her house, and suffered other lost income as a result of Plaintiff’s injury and prolonged recovery,” the AG wrote in a summary of the case.

The Hawaii State Public Library System is also on the hook for $143,990 worth of violations from the Environmental Protection Agency. The EPA found that the libraries had two large cesspools that were not closed according to federal regulations.

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