Hawaii state senators on Tuesday advanced a slight increase to the minimum wage and another measure that would legalize recreational pakalolo for anyone 21 years and older.

While this is the first year a recreational pot measure has cleared a full floor vote, it appears dead on arrival in the House of Representatives. A key House chairman said he may not hear the measure.

The House meanwhile advanced measures allowing certain nurses to perform abortions after significant debate on the floor. Those bills are among hundreds that crossed over between the House and the Senate on Tuesday.

More stringent gun control laws also drew some attention during floor debates. And the new federal stimulus bill may spell death for certain tax credit proposals.

Senate President Ron Kouchi during session at the Capitol thru the Rotunda windows. March 9, 2021.
Senate President Ron Kouchi presided over the floor session Tuesday. The State Capitol is still closed to the public. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Recreational pot measures crop up almost every year, but most never gain traction. In 2019, a similar bill cleared its first Senate committee but failed to advance beyond that.

If Senate Bill 767 is ultimately successful, however, Hawaii would become the 16th state to legalize recreational marijuana. Individuals would be able to possess up to 30 grams of weed under SB 767.

The regulatory scheme would be similar to Hawaii’s medical pot program. The state Department of Taxation would administer the recreational pot program and issue licenses to growers and sellers.

Tax Director Isaac Choy has previously told lawmakers that the department does not yet have expertise in regulating cannabis and warned that dispensaries would need to pay out taxes in cash because of banking regulations.

There was little discussion on Senate Bill 767 Tuesday. Sens. Lorraine Inouye, Kurt Fevella, Bennette Misalucha and Michelle Kidani voted no.

Inouye worried about a possible rise in drug use and said there’s no guarantee that illegal drug sales will stop. She also echoed enforcement concerns from state departments.

House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee Chairman Mark Nakashima said he is not inclined to hold a hearing on the legalization bill, which means the measure will probably die for the year.

“On legalization, I really think we need to get the medical marijuana program up and running in a much more healthy way before we’re ready for any kind of legalization,” Nakashima said. “I really think the dispensaries really need to be given a chance to really perform.” 

APRNs To Perform Abortions

The longest debate of the day for House lawmakers revolved around House Bill 576, which would authorize advanced practice registered nurses to perform aspiration abortions, which is a procedure that involves suction to terminate an early pregnancy.

Republican Rep. Gene Ward, who opposed the bill, declared on the House floor that “life doesn’t belong in a vacuum cleaner.”

GOP Rep. Bob McDermott, who said he is “pro-life,” questioned the wisdom of allowing non-physicians to perform abortions, and Republican Rep. Val Okimoto said she is also “unapologetically pro-life.”

Okimoto said her grandmother had to choose whether to terminate a pregnancy or give birth, and “this is one of the most difficult decisions we may make as women, no matter our background.”

Her grandmother chose to give birth to a daughter and put her up for adoption. “Had she made a different decision, I would not have the privilege of addressing you and this body today,” Okimoto said.

House members are surrounded by plexiglass partitions during floor session. March 9, 2021
House Republicans including Reps. Bob McDermott and Val Okimoto, bottom, opposed a measure to allow APRNs to perform certain abortions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“To me and many others, there is no compromise to the life of the child,” she said. “This is not a stance I take lightly. This is a conviction to protect life, and one that is under constant attack.”

Rep. Linda Ichiyama replied that the bill would allow advanced practice nurses to perform aspiration abortions in an office, a procedure she emphasized is “very simple” and is not surgery.

Numerous doctors “resoundingly” support the bill and opined that APRNs can safely perform the procedure, Ichiyama said.

The issue is access to abortion services, because abortions today can only be done by physicians, she said. “Prior to the pandemic, access on the neighbor islands to abortion care was severely restricted, and during the pandemic … that situation only got worse,” she said.

“This bill addresses that situation, and ensures that no matter where somebody lives in this state, they can have access to this critical health care,” Ichiyama said.

Rep. Jeanne Kapela told her colleagues that “whether or not we choose to keep a child or to terminate for our own choices, we have to be able to have that choice, and we have to be able to have access to that choice.”

The measure passed in a 42-9 vote, and now goes to the Senate for further consideration.

Minimum Wage Bill May Die

Labor advocates and unions have pushed lawmakers for a $17 minimum wage by 2026. In 2019, the Senate advanced a measure that would raise hourly wages to $15 an hour by 2023. Gov. David Ige also supported that proposal. But the measure died in the final hours of session.

Last year another proposal to raise wages to $13 an hour stalled because of the pandemic.

Senate Bill 676 would raise wages to $12 an hour by next July, with no proposed raises after that. That’s too low for advocates, and any amount has been opposed by businesses this year.

The state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism estimates that Hawaii residents need to earn about $17 an hour to keep up with Hawaii’s cost of living.

Sen. Laura Acasio supported that higher amount and had concerns that the current proposal is too low for low-income Hawaii families. She urged her colleagues to pass a higher wage.

“I would beg us not to compromise our values when real lives, real families are counting on us to finish the work from 2019,” the freshman senator from Hilo said on the floor.

Sen. Laura Acasio, left, urged the Senate to pass a $17 an hour minimum wage. Screenshot

Sens. Gil Riviere and Glenn Wakai voted against  SB 676.

“I think, due to the pandemic, this is the wrong year to be doing this,” Riviere said. “In any other year, I wouldn’t oppose this.”

House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke cast doubt on any wage increases coming this year. The House did not advance any wage increase bills but will take up SB 676 now that it cleared the Senate.

I think minimum wage is not as simple as people think, and at this point in time, even the Senate approach is a delayed implementation, which means that it would be more rational for both the Senate and the House to take another look at it next year,” Luke said.

Federal Relief May Kill Tax Breaks

The House and Senate deferred more than a dozen bills Tuesday that would extend state tax breaks or offer new tax relief to Hawaii residents and companies because lawmakers said the new federal pandemic relief bill may prohibit passage of those measures.

The current draft of the federal bill known as the American Rescue Plan Act would offer huge dollops of aid to each of the states to help them balance their budgets, but would also prohibit the states from using that money to hand out new tax breaks to their residents, Luke said.

House member Sylvia Luke sits behind plastic dividers during floor session at the Capitol. March 9, 2021
The new federal relief bill may require lawmakers to shelve certain tax credits this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Hawaii state government stands to gain $1.6 billion in federal funding from the Rescue Plan Act — money the state urgently needs to balance the budget — which means the state tax relief bills may be dead for the year.

Among the measures that may be casualties of that new federal restriction is Senate Bill 614, which would retroactively exempt from state income taxes any unemployment benefits Hawaii residents received from March 1, 2020, to the end of last year.

The 2021 Legislature

Another at-risk measure is House Bill 432, which would extend the state’s existing earned income tax credit for low-income working families. That credit will remain in place for this year, but is scheduled to expire at the end of next year.

Still another measure that was deferred and may be in jeopardy is Senate Bill 946, which would offer federally funded grants to commercial, hotel or resort property landlords who forgive rents owed by their commercial tenants during the pandemic.

Luke said lawmakers have been in “intensive discussions” with Hawaii’s federal delegation, and “they are also of the mindset that any bills relating to tax credits or tax exemptions or even a tax relief extension, as you can see in the EITC situation, would violate the federal relief provision.”

Lawmakers’ understanding is that the federal restrictions on new state tax relief will remain in place until the end of 2024, she said.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said lawmakers are waiting for more information from the state Department of Budget and Finance before deciding whether or not to move forward with those measures.

Kakaako Makai Bill Advances

State senators also advanced a controversial proposal to allow the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to develop residential towers on several parcels the office owns on the Kakaako waterfront. Those were among a handful of properties given to OHA in 2012 to settle $200 million in past-due claims on lands formerly held by the Hawaiian Kingdom.

Similar efforts to develop those parcels were met with vehement community opposition in years past.

Sen. Sharon Moriwaki, who represents Kakaako, brought up legislative efforts to limit development in the area in the past.

“I don’t think we’re saying OHA does not have the right to build. I think, representing the area, seeing the hundreds of hours people put into making sure we have shoreline that everyone can enjoy — it’s not just Kakaako residents that enjoy that area,” Moriwaki said.

Senate Bill 1334 would allow OHA to pursue residential developments on several waterfront properties.

Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole spoke in favor of a bill to allow OHA to develop parcels along the Kakaako waterfront. Screenshot

The bill would also allow 400-foot towers to be built on two parcels, one near the swimming spot “Pillars” adjacent to the Kakaako Waterfront Park, and the other on the corner of Ala Moana Boulevard and Ward Avenue where the state has an office building.

Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole spoke at length in support of the measure. He said allowing OHA to develop the lands would net the best use for the property. He noted community opposition to housing developments all over the state, and said it makes sense to site a new project in Honolulu’s urban core.

“When we talk about preserving this place as a gathering place for the next generation, who exactly are we preserving it for?” Keohokalole said. “The rich are already there.”

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