In a rare rebuke of a Democratic governor, lawmakers on Tuesday overrode five measures that Gov. David Ige vetoed, among them a bill that would yank dedicated funding for the state’s tourism marketing agency and change the formula for how counties get tourism tax dollars.

The Legislature also overrode the governor’s decision to veto bills that would exempt candidates from certain political advertising disclosures and require the state education department to report cases of COVID-19 in schools.

It’s the most vetoes rejected by lawmakers of any sitting Democratic governor in Hawaii’s history. On Tuesday, Ige vetoed 26 bills after imposing line item vetoes on portions of the state budget.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said after floor voting Tuesday that House leaders never really understood why Ige felt some of the vetoes were necessary in the first place. The veto messages did not always offer adequate explanations, he said.

“For one thing, the governor vetoed more bills than he normally does, so we were somewhat surprised by his list,” Saiki said. “These bills were all approved by the Legislature this year, most of them were approved unanimously.”

House Speaker Scott Saiki and Representative Sylvia Luke during legislative special session at the Capitol.
Lawmakers overrode five bills that Ige objected to on Tuesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“The Legislature just felt that some of these bills needed to be overridden because we had worked on them throughout the session, and felt that we had made some good policy calls,” Saiki said.

The House on Tuesday also voted to override vetoes on three other measures that dealt with court procedures and Department of Education financial plans. However the Senate doesn’t have plans on taking those bills up this week, according to a Senate spokesperson.

Lawmakers are set to reconvene at 3 p.m. Thursday to approve several amendments to bills affecting the budget, special funds and the University of Hawaii Cancer Center. The House and Senate will also consider whether or not they will override Ige’s veto of House Bill 53, a measure that appropriates more than $1.2 billion in bond debt over the next two fiscal years to fund various construction projects in the state.

But on Tuesday, it was House Bill 862 that drew attention from lawmakers and Ige.

It cleared the House 38-8 and the Senate 17-8, which was just enough Senate votes to pass.

The measure would replace HTA’s funds with $60 million in federal relief funds, down from the agency’s current annual budget of about $79 million. It would require HTA, like every other state agency, to ask the Legislature for money every year.

The measure also yanks $103 million in tourism tax dollars that typically go to the four counties and instead allows them to adopt a 3% surcharge on visitor accommodations. Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi and Maui Mayor Mike Victorino both gave preliminary support to the idea earlier this year.

The bill also abolishes a state aerospace office and transfers authority for another state space program from the state Department of Business Economic Development and Tourism to UH Hilo.

The multitude of subjects captured in one bill is a reason that Sen. Laura Acasio decided to vote against it.

“This would not be OK with me if I was back home as a constituent,” she said from the Senate floor.

Others, like Sen. Bennette Misalucha, sees the bill as a way to give lawmakers greater oversight of the HTA. The agency operates semi-autonomously from the state.

“Based on past performance for the past few years, HTA will need now to convince the Legislature it is deserving of this autonomy,” Misalucha said.

At a press conference before the override sessions began, Ige said that he was still open to working with the Legislature to find a way forward on tourism authority funding.

“I’m certainly willing to work on compromise measures to help plug the gaps in the budget and HTA operations,” Ige said. “I do believe it’s important that HTA is able to lead in this transition to destination management.”

The governor echoed opposition from the tourism industry and said that cutting funding for the tourism agency could hurt its progress on those plans, in turn hampering Hawaii’s economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic. HTA is targeting higher spending international visitors, Ige said, as part of a broader effort to control the number of tourists arriving on Hawaii’s shores each year.

Governor David Ige during press conference announcing bills that he will veto at the Capitol.
Gov. David Ige on Tuesday defended HTA’s efforts to better manage tourism. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

The governor’s emergency powers give him the ability to reallocate funding but only according to budget limits set by the Legislature, Ige said. So it’s not likely that he could use his gubernatorial powers to save all of HTA’s funding.

Ige said he is open to working with lawmakers on HB 862 and other bills to find amicable solutions. However, he said he has only met with lawmakers informally to “conceptualize some of the measures.”

“But we haven’t had a formal discussion about any of the measures at this point,” Ige said.

The House and Senate both agreed to mandate disclosure of COVID-19 cases in public schools. Ige previously objected to that measure due to privacy concerns. But lawmakers said it’s necessary to protect the public health.

“Without the public knowing what schools are impacted, how can they know their community is safe? How can they know that their children are safe,” Sen. Michelle Kidani said, adding that the DOE already compiles reports of COVID-19 cases.

The Legislature also overrode Ige’s veto of other measures dealing with oversight of the state’s “Hawaii Made” trademark program and another requiring pet owners to put microchips in their pets.

More Changes To Come

Ige also vetoed two fiscal bills and line-item vetoed portions of the state budget, saying that lawmakers had run afoul of federal rules governing pandemic relief aid.

During the regular session the Legislature appropriated hundreds of millions of dollars in federal money from the American Rescue Plan Act to finance state bond debt, but recent federal guidance prohibits the use of that pandemic relief funding to repay debt.

State tax collections have surged since then as the tourism industry recovered, and since the state now has additional money, Ige proposed a fix that would replace the ARPA federal funding with state funds.

The House and Senate agreed and approved floor amendments Tuesday that would appropriate more than $496 million in state funds for the debt service. Lawmakers are expected to give final approval on Thursday to an amended version of House Bill 54 that includes that money.

The House voted to override three of Ige’s other vetoes, but the Senate declined to take action on those measures Tuesday.

The House voted 44-to-3 to override Ige’s veto on House Bill 338, which would require that a hearing be held when a motion is filed in any proceeding in appellate court alleging a conflict of interest pertaining to a judge or justice.

Ige vetoed the bill, saying in his message that the parties in cases already have a mechanism for raising concerns about judges’ conflicts of interest.

The Senate took no action on the measure Tuesday, but Saiki said it is still possible the Senate could vote Thursday to override Ige’s veto. An override requires two-thirds votes by both the House and Senate, so if the Senate refuses to act, Ige’s veto will stand.

The House also voted 41-5 to override Ige’s veto of Senate Bill 639, which would prohibit courts of appeal from ruling on certain issues unless all parties in the case have an opportunity to brief the court.

Ige said in his veto message the measure is unnecessary because the state Supreme Court is currently updating its rules to address that concern.

And House members also voted 44-2 to override Ige’s veto of Senate Bill 807, which would require the academic plans for each school to include new measurements. Ige said in his veto message those new measurements “may not add value” for the schools.

Saiki said after the floor session Tuesday that House and Senate leaders had agreed last week on a preliminary list of vetoes that would be overridden, and those three bills were on the list.

“It was our assumption that the Senate would follow through with those votes. We just felt that the House needed to take the vote in anticipation of the Senate doing likewise,” he said.

Saiki said he does not know why the Senate did not act on the measures, or whether they will vote to override on Thursday.

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