Editor’s note: The Civil Beat Editorial Board and other reporters spoke with Speaker Scott Saiki, Vice Speaker John Mizuno, Majority Leader Della Au Belatti, Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee Chair Aaron Ling Johanson and Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke of the Hawaii House of Representatives Friday in a wide-ranging interview. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity and with an eye toward saving some of it for separate stories.

Saiki: I think the question probably is what is the theme of the 2021 session legislative session? And I’m going to copy something that Colin Moore said (on PBS “Insights” Thursday night), because I thought it was actually a pretty good thematic statement, which was to stop the bleeding. So I think the 2021 session was to stop the bleeding and to provide direct financial relief. To specific groups of people, people in need, and I think that is what sums up all of the work that we did this year — to stop the bleeding and to provide direct financial relief. Basically to the safety net. We also passed legislation to protect renters who are facing eviction. And also to create a new predatory lending or regulatory scheme for the state. So for me, that just kind of sums up the 2021 session.

House Speaker Scott Saiki meeting with the Civil Beat Editorial Board on Friday. The chamber’s top priority in the 2021 legislative session was addressing the economic fallout from the pandemic. 

Mizuno: I thought mitigation of COVID-19 to safely reopen the economy was a top priority that we were able to tackle. Another thing that I just wanted to end on was people usually criticize the Legislature for any gut and replace, and the speaker made a bold move and leadership backed it up. We gutted and replaced the bill to defer the pay increases for legislators, judges, the governor, lieutenant governor and all department heads. And so after that had occurred, I did not see anyone complain about a gut and replace. I think it just shows some value there and an important move by speaker and leadership of the House.

Johanson: Top of mind for me, and I think in terms of order of magnitude of how many people it positively impacts — we actually are phasing out the predatory payday lending scheme and creating an installment loan process, which is going to be a dramatic improvement for the 20% of Hawaii’s population that relies on payday loans because they’re under-banked or unbanked.

But, when we talk about people in need, that is a huge percentage of the population relying on payday loans instead of a bank account or a credit card. And so this is going to help them build credit while still preserving access to capital and much more favorable terms to the consumer and bringing in more scrupled lenders who are making less profit, but really trying to actually help people who need the capital.

House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said that having the Capitol closed to the public due to COVID-19 had both a positive and negative impact. Going forward, the House may move to a hybrid model of session that would include more Zoom meetings. 

So payday lending reform is one bill — the eviction moratorium, tenant relief with mandated mediation between the tenant and the landlord, I thought was an excellent compromise to ensure that there’s a safe harbor for tenants while also preserving ultimately the landlord’s rights as well, and their ability to get some recompense when we have to deal with what is invariably going to be a mountain of debt once the eviction moratoriums expire.

So many of Hawaii folks live in condos and in condo regimes, and we did a lot in the committee to update the laws to enable governance to happen, virtually both voting and meetings. So if you live in a condo, you know how important that is in governing sort of your corporate space that your personal property belongs to.

And I think that was something that was also very important. Additionally, there was electric gun licensure and regulation — also important. Some of these things fell by the wayside in terms of, I think, order of controversy, but still important things done nonetheless.

Are you talking about stun guns or Tasers?

Johanson: Yes.

What happened with this bill?

Johanson: So based on the Supreme Court rulings, Hawaii’s outright ban was likely to be unconstitutional. So in working with the attorney general’s office, we had to create essentially a regulatory and licensure scheme that both protected folks, considering that (there are) both Tasers and you can also have an electric projectile gun. I tell you, I’ve learned so many random things in this Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee that I would otherwise never know, but basically those two methods which have the ability to inflict harm, you know, how do we stand up a regulatory scheme?

“We actually are phasing out the predatory payday lending scheme and creating an installment loan process.” — Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson

Originally, we were going to do the licensure akin to guns through the county police departments, but they all opposed that. So we ended up basically switching it to the counties which are responsible for licensure program for those sellers of electric guns. And it’s much more akin to what they do now. Like if you sell mace, you apparently also have to — at least in Honolulu — you have to register with the City and County so people can still have it. But there’s a training course and mandatory training courses for safety. Background checks have to be done when selling it at the point of sale. So a lot more double-check mechanisms created than if we just let the law be struck down or outright ban be struck down because the Supreme Court already basically invalidated it.

Saiki: Can I add something real fast? Just please remind your readers that the Gabby Giffords Foundation gives Hawaii an A-minus rating on our gun laws — that Hawaii has taken courageous steps to protect its residents, enacting some of the strongest gun laws in the country and setting an example for other states. So this electric gun bill that Rep. Johansen just mentioned will just continue to add to our nationwide record.

On the payday lending bill, I think of the term loan shark, but just how exorbitant, if you will remind us, are the interest fees, if you will, on paying back those payday loans?

Johanson: Oh, it’s huge. The (annual percentage rates) are sometimes in the order of 300% to 400%. With the average loan of $300 a consumer ends up paying on average $529 over five months for that $300 loan. And the truth is, the way the current lending scheme is set up, there isn’t licensure. So there’s very little oversight of the lenders. We needed to correct that.

And where people really often don’t know what they’re getting into is they have no idea what the annual interest rates are, the maintenance fees, and most of the time they’re taking out new loans just to pay off the old loan. So it really, to your point, has become this vicious cycle of a debt trap for some of the people who are least able to get themselves out of it.

Can you give us an update on when the Capitol might reopen? When can we freely roam what used to be the most open Capitol pretty much in the country?

Saiki: So ironically, I just spoke with the comptroller this morning about the reopening plans. The comptroller, as you know, is responsible for the state Capitol building under the Department of Accounting and General Services, and he is considering a phased reopening. There’s no time frame attached at this point, but he wants to consider a phased reopening with some enhanced security measures. But there’s no other details at this point.

So my inclination is that, yes, at some point the building will be reopened. The public will be able to access not just the legislative offices, but also the governor’s office and the lieutenant governor’s office.

But I want to also add to that one thing that I’ve kind of learned, especially as speaker — and this has happened numerous times where people have come over to the office for a meeting. They have made comments about the lack of security in the building. This is pre-pandemic. “Why was there no screening when I entered the building? Are you folks watching out for the security of visitors?” So the security issue is not just a concern for those who work here, but also for people who visit the building, it’s to protect the public.

How did having the building shut down since March of 2020 change the way you did business? Where did it make things better? Where did it make things worse?

Luke: You know, for Finance, I don’t know if it really made a difference, because of the Zoom capabilities. We were able to hear from all kinds of people without having, depending on the bills, (to) figure out, “OK, who’s from the neighbor islands?” And then we have to adjust our schedule to hear from individuals who flew over just to testify. So in one sense, I thought it was really nice that we didn’t have to juggle. Our chief clerk’s office did a really good job in notifying testifiers when it was their turn to come up and provide opportunities for people to testify from their home as opposed to jumping on a plane.

We’re already talking about, going forward, should there be a hybrid system? Because it really opened up that possibility.

“The security issue is not just a concern for those who work here, but also for people who visit the building.” — Speaker Scott Saiki

To some extent you sit around in the conference room with just legislators in there, you really miss something because you kind of miss that energy. You kind of miss that interaction. And it’s really clunky. Right? Even now, if we were all sitting in a room, we would have a lot more dialogue as opposed to taking turns, being polite. That whole interaction is what is needed. And I think during the budget hearings, I kind of felt that we couldn’t really do that interaction with the departments and we couldn’t do a lot of in-depth questions. So I think, you know, good and bad.

Johanson: I think one of the things that was really helpful about the virtual testimony is it really felt, in a perversely ironic way, because it was engendered by this pandemic, I felt like a lot of testifiers were comfortable because it was the Legislature coming to them where they were comfortable and on their ground, as opposed to forcing everyone to come to us.

This is my fifth year as a committee chair, and I’ve often thought some of these poor people have to keep feeding the meter or struggling to find parking downtown or waiting around in a Capitol that is generally just not that well equipped to host a lot of people for indefinite periods of time while they wait to testify on their bill. I think they felt a little bit more comfortable. We always have quality testimony, but I felt like when you’re comfortable, you are more likely to be able to freely express yourself.

Speaker Scott Saiki leads House members over to the Senate chambers on the last day of session. Aprll 29, 2021
Speaker Scott Saiki, second from left, leads House members over to the Senate chambers on the last day of session, April 29. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

I did miss having school groups and just the natural rhythms of the Capitol are so enmeshed with having the public here that it was very surreal because it often felt kind of like a ghost town. I mean, it was essentially except for staff and legislators. But I think there were some very positive takeaways that if we are able to do hybrid, which might really help enfranchise people in the spirit of sort of citizen democracy.

Belatti: I think the first thing was, people will be surprised to hear, we have the ability to still interact and take in information. And I think we do that. We did that before Zoom and we continue to do that. So that was a positive.

“We took the important step this session of funding the prison oversight commission.” — Majority Leader Della Au Belatti

I think one thing I was surprised at is, even though we went to virtual, I don’t know that there was as much participation as we had thought there would be from the neighbor islands. We need to look more at the data to find out how it all played out. But after having years and years of people asking for it, it was actually kind of surprising to not see more of it in some circumstances.

And then one last thing is that I think, it’s not just the hearings where we have human interaction that was lost. We have caucuses, we have meetings, we have stakeholder caucus groups, all these kinds of things. And I think I just want to echo that the loss of the human interaction was big, because there is just a difference in the kinds of relationships that are built and the activity that goes on. There’s something really good about in person. And I think I’m excited about moving towards a hybrid system.

What has happened to the select committee on COVID-19? We really loved that thing. And it seems absent now.

Saiki: Yeah, so prior to the session we were meeting every two weeks, and then when the session began we just told the members, “Well, because the session is going to be so busy, we’re going to have to just schedule them, be on call for four meetings.” And so we have I think we had maybe two or three during the session.

But there’s a couple of things. One is that during the session, we, the House, did adopt a resolution that requested the Hawaii Community Foundation to help take the lead in continuing this kind of effort, this COVID committee effort. And then as far as the House COVID committee meetings, I’ll be talking with our co-chair, Peter Ho, to see what the appetite is to continue. I’m assuming that if we do continue, it won’t be every two weeks, it’ll be less frequent.

But I think there was a lot of value to that committee. I think there were different kinds of people who got involved. I think it was good to see the public, private and nonprofit sectors collaborating. I think people wanted to participate. We wanted to give input. And I think state government and the Legislature and the general public benefited from that.

So the other issue is what’s going on with police reform and the way that Hawaii does policing and what could be done better. But it’s such a big deal nationally and here locally. Why wasn’t it more of a priority?

And I’m still just befuddled why the statewide police boards haven’t gotten any money to do their business, and why they don’t get more support from the Legislature.

Belatti: I actually think that what you have to remember is that policing is really a creature of the counties. So I know that there is this effort and this desire to come to the state to get reforms, but I actually think that’s quite misplaced.

I do think that as a legislative body, we did put up the standards board. And to your question, why isn’t it being funded? But that’s important, in some ways, a function of the executive and it plays back into the way that policing is actually regulated, which is by the counties.

So I think that the conversation is super important. It’s not that we’re not interested in doing it, but where the state does intersect with some of these kind of justice reform issues, it is about prison oversight. And we took the important step this session of funding the prison oversight commission. And really, that’s where we can interact as the state.

I think that given the ways in which the counties operate, the questions of leadership at the counties now, the change that we’ve had and the really this kind of tsunami kind of changes we’ve had in Honolulu with a new prosecutor. And now we’re going through a situation where we’re going to have a new police chief. These are all very important questions. But the way that we’re going to get reform here in the state of Hawaii is not necessarily through the Legislature. It’s not that we’re not interested. It’s just that I think that the real activity is at the county level.

Saiki: So the state-county distinction is important. And, you know, there’s one area where the state actually did have jurisdiction over this issue, and that was the disclosure of police disciplinary records. So that was a big fix that we made just 10 months ago.

But it took years for that to happen and there was a lot of opposition from the police union. To me, it illustrates the point that, in fact, the Legislature does have a great deal to do with police reform, even though it’s primarily the counties.

These are other bills that died this session — we mentioned earlier the shootings review board. It’s going to not be permanent unless you guys decide to extend it beyond next year.

Allowing citizens to record police activities, that died, requiring officers to report misconduct by other officers, that died, allowing the collection of more data on arrest and use of force, that died. No knock warrants, Breonna’s Law, that died, the chokeholds bill, that died. On a related matter, stopping civil asset forfeiture, that died as well. And so even though it may be the kuleana of the counties, you guys sure had a lot on your plate and none of it got through, even though a lot of these bills don’t have a lot of money attached.

And so we see you create the Law Enforcement Review Board or the Standards Board. And then they don’t do squat. I mean, they don’t do anything for years and years. And so why not? Why can’t you make them do what they’re supposed to do and what the public expects them to do?

Luke: That is an important question, but that goes to every agency, administration and function, right? The Finance Committee and myself and my staff, we do a lot of oversight, but sometimes there’s a fine line between oversight and micromanaging. And the departments really don’t like when we go and ask for things. But, you know, I do think it’s my job to do that. That’s how we uncover a lot of stuff.

But you know all these boards we create, it is very frustrating. It’s not as if these things are not important. But it really comes down to us, you know, going and micromanaging and a lot of times, we hope that the people who get on will do a good job. 

And I do think police reform continues to be top of mind. So I think in the future we have to figure out, OK, what are some of the things that we can try to do right away and what are some other oversight (areas)? But it’s hard. We deal with so many disappointments, and that’s why (in) the interim it’s important that we go and follow up and it is (like) being that nag.

Belatti: Just three things to kind of highlight what Sylvia said. I hope you ask that question about the boards to the administration, because we did our part, we enacted and now they have to execute.

Number two, for some of the laundry list you pointed out, I want to point out it, sometimes it’s not state law that’s going to govern these things. It’s actually case law that already governs these things. So I’m familiar with the federal law case where someone was stopped from filming police officers in the Maui County. The law of the land by case law is that people are allowed to film police officers. So this notion that it’s not allowable, it is allowed.

Same with the chokeholds. I believe, again, it’s governed by county policies. And my understanding and I’d have to check this with all the counties, but I think for the most part, the types of chokeholds that people are concerned with are not allowed. So, again, it’s something that’s already there that doesn’t need to be covered by legislation.

House members are surrounded by plexiglass partitions during floor session. March 9, 2021
House members followed social distancing on the chamber floors, which included the installment of Plexiglass partitions. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

And then third and final point is, I know that there’s been a lot of discussion about that the no-knock warrants are not getting out. And what I would say to that is, you know, that was recommended at the last minute because of our review of that. And again, case law governs that. Actually, the case law is very good and there is practically — there is in practice — no no-knock warrants in the state. The 30 seconds that would have been imposed on all warrants was the problem with that bill and even advocates of no-knock warrant reforms — ACLU Hawaii — agreed with our position, which was the stripping of the exigent circumstances. So there’s a lots of reasons why some of these things didn’t happen.

What is the House going to be focusing on during the interim, between now and the start of the next session?

Saiki: So Rep. Richard Onishi, who chairs our Labor Committee, announced last week that he’ll be working on financial fairness issues. So that would not just include wages, the minimum wage, but it also will include other areas where we could work to provide financial relief to those who are in need.

Just to rewind a little bit, the House and the Senate had a joint package at the start of the regular session, that was 2020. It was to raise the minimum wage and to add in some tax relief for working families, such as the expansion of the earned income tax credit. And because of the pandemic, we had to stop work on that. But I’m assuming that Rep. Onishi’s package will be along the lines of what we had worked on two years ago.

The other area is, and I think the majority leader can explain this, is that the House did approve a resolution to create an investigative committee to look into a couple of areas. One is to agree to the audit of the Agribusiness Development Corp. And the second area was the audit of the land management division at DLNR.

I was curious to know what happened with the emergency powers bill, HB 103 — that was one of the things that was recommitted in the last couple of days. And it seemed odd because that looked like it was one of the pretty important bills that the House put forward this year.

Saiki: We acknowledge that the public, like the members of the Legislature, have some concerns about the extent of the governor’s emergency powers. And what we saw in this pandemic was that the governor issued 19 emergency proclamations starting last March. And I think he’s about to issue a 20th proclamation. So that’s why the legislation was introduced.

When the bill came out of conference committee, we realized that it did propose a 60-day time limit for an emergency proclamation, but that it left out a really important point, which was whether or not the governor would have the ability to extend or renew a proclamation after it had met the 60-day expiration deadline.

And that’s an important point, for a couple of reasons. First, there is litigation ongoing right now in Hawaii where people are challenging the governor’s ability to renew or extend a proclamation. And the current law is not clear on that point. If our position was that if we are going to enact a new statute, that that needs to be clear whether the governor can renew a proclamation. Unfortunately, it was really late and we were not able to reach an agreement with the Senate on how to address that question.

The second point is that — this is my opinion — in an emergency, in a pandemic, the governor should have the ability to issue an emergency proclamation. The governor should have some ability to extend it or to renew it. And if the Legislature disagrees with that, the Legislature should have a mechanism, should have the authority to override that proclamation. And I think that going forward, legislation should be crafted in that way.

How did the pandemic, in the way it sort of forced you to focus on these near-term emergencies like the economy, affect efforts to address existing long-term problems like climate change?

Saiki: So environmental issues — it was kind of a sleeper this year, because we actually did pass some very significant bills on the climate and the environment. I’ll just give you a few examples.

One is that there will be a mandate for sea level rise disclosures and identification of state parcels that are subject to sea level rise. We also have a mandate for the state motor pool fleet to be electric by the year 2035, and that’s going to be thousands of state vehicles. We also approved the bill to begin the laying the groundwork for more EV charging stations in Hawaii, and we also approved the Green Jobs Youth Corps.

Our recent public opinion poll says the Legislature has a 47% negative rating, only 31% positive, just 22% unsure. How do you react to that?

Johanson: I’d love to take this because, as somebody who spent a long time in Washington, D.C., that is dramatically higher than Congress’s approval rating. When you ask people about their own representative or their own senator, the statistics are very different. And so I think as an amalgam that reflects the general trend that people don’t necessarily love legislative bodies as a whole because they don’t know most of the legislators. But it’s a very different story when you poll individually, at least at the congressional level. Nobody likes Congress, but when you ask about their individual member of Congress, well, they’ve reelected them for 30 years and they love them. So you often see that duality. Obviously there is a lot of work that needs to be done.

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