More public school classrooms could soon get air conditioning units. And tourists and residents may soon see markers pointing out significant areas in the life of former President Barack Obama.

University of Hawaii Student Stories project badgeSome kupuna could wait a little longer before having to renew their licenses. And companies that skirt wage laws may face increased criminal penalties.

These are a few of the measures lawmakers passed in conference committees last week. The House and Senate already passed many of those bills on Tuesday, just a portion of the 300 or so bills lawmakers have sent to Gov. David Ige.

Ige has until late June to decide whether to veto a bill, sign it, or allow it to become law without his signature.

More ACs in Classrooms

Hawaii lawmakers are putting $10 million toward cooling more public school classrooms. Senate Bill 2862 passed a conference committee and is headed to a floor vote. The funding would go to cool classrooms that have not yet gotten air conditioning units from funding appropriated in 2016.

Classroom temperatures have been recorded at over 100 degrees Fahrenheit. A committee report on the measure said that “hot classroom temperatures in the State’s public schools can adversely affect students and student achievement.”

“We want to give children a comfortable place for learning and I think if you are sweating and hot you might not be paying attention as well as if you were in a nice building,” Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran said.

Lawmakers are providing more funds to cool classrooms. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2017

During the pandemic, some questioned if installing AC units throughout public classrooms would spread the COVID-19 virus, making it difficult for this bill to pass.

“I think part of what happened during the pandemic was people became concerned that we were going to have more air circulation,” Keith-Agaran. “Air conditioning is one of those things that might affect exactly how much air circulation goes around in a classroom because you would have to close all the windows and I think now that there are different kinds of units that are available, I think they are now comfortable with moving forward.”

Kupuna Licenses

Kupuna between the ages of 72 and 80 could renew their driver’s license every four years instead of two if Senate Bill 2679 becomes law.

The current law requires anyone over the age of 72 to renew their license every two years, while those under the age of 72 may renew their license every eight years. Sen. Bennette Misalucha, who introduced SB 2679, said she did so to heed calls from the community asking for less frequent trips to renew a driver’s license.

Kapalama Driver License Center. This was the Diamond Head side.
People aged 72 to 80 could get more time before they need to renew their licenses. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

“We have vibrant, energetic kupuna,” Misalucha said. “They take care of themselves, they eat healthy food and they’re very lucid, so there was a clamor from the community to see if we could extend it from two years to four years.”

The American Association of Retired Persons wrote in their written testimony supporting the bill that the change would alleviate burdens on both Kupuna and the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“This was definitely one of the priority bills that we were focusing on,” said Audrey Suga-Nakagawa, the advocacy director for AARP. “Especially with COVID … the city was really limited. Everyone had to get appointments and things got delayed. It really impacted the drivers, all drivers, but especially seniors.”

More Housing

Senate Bill 2251 would allow the Hawaii Public Housing Authority to develop mixed-income and mixed-financed housing projects to address the state’s lack of affordable housing.

The construction of more mixed-income housing will be a much more attractive option than assisted housing, Ken Hiraki, director of government affairs for the Hawaii Association of Realtors, said in written testimony on the bill.

“A mixed-income housing development is a proven model that works,” Hiraki said. “We have a housing supply problem and this measure will help address our state’s housing challenges.”

Lawmakers are pushing for a more diverse mix of housing units to attract developers. Ludwig Laab/Civil Beat/2022

But those opposed to the bill say that the expanded authority is unnecessary as it will give HPHA a role that is already played by a separate agency, the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation. HHFDC oversees the financing and development of affordable housing and works with the housing authority on other projects. HHFDC often helps to finance redevelopment projects using the rental housing revolving fund and low-income tax credits.

Sen. Stanley Chang said that there are already several agencies that oversee housing finance and development.

“We need all the help we can get to close the gap between demand and production,” Chang said. “The more agencies we have working on the problem the closer we will come to ending the housing shortage.”

The Office of Hawaiian Affairs previously raised concerns over development of ceded lands that were formerly owned by the Hawaiian Kingdom. Chang said lawmakers have addressed that concern with amendments to the bill that prohibit the development of any vacant ceded lands.

“There are existing public housing units on ceded lands. They’ve been there for many years,” Chang said. “Nobody would argue that we should demolish those units in order to return those lands to the Native Hawaiian entity and leave those people homeless.”

Increased Penalties For Unpaid Wages

Lawmakers are seeking to ramp up penalties for employers who do not comply with the state’s wage laws.

Wage violators could face penalties of at least $500 and could be found guilty of a Class C felony, punishable by up to five years in prison, under Senate Bill 2298. Right now, Hawaii law states that if employers do not comply they can be fined no less than $100 and would be guilty of a misdemeanor.

“The employees who will most benefit from something like this are those who are low in pay,” said Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran. “They’re the ones who are probably living more than any other people here, paycheck to paycheck.”

The occurrence of unpaid wages happened in restaurants within the past six months according to Sen. Keith-Agaran, who pointed to several instances of restaurants not timely paying their employees.

About $15 billion in wages are stolen each year in the U.S., according to the preamble of the bill.

Mandatory Ethics Training

Mandatory ethics training would be required of state legislators and employees every four years under House Bill 1475.

“The intent has always been to move in this direction,” said Robert Harris, the executive director and general counsel of the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. “However the Ethics Commission wanted to create the program first before trying to mandate the actual ethics training.”

The ethics training course is already being offered both online and through Zoom, Harris said. State legislators and employees receive ethics training when they are first hired, but will now have to complete the periodical training in order to maintain their ethics certification.

Legislators and other state employees whose financial disclosure statements are public records will be required to complete the training live, either on Zoom or in-person.

State employees would soon be required to attend ethics training. Civil Beat file photo

The bill’s passing means the course certification will be required for about 60,000 state workers, Harris said. Sandy Ma, executive director of Common Cause Hawaii, suggested ethics training should be done annually.

While that’s not in the bill now, requiring more frequent training is an idea the ethics commission might consider in the future, Harris said.

The idea to impose penalties on those who don’t complete their training was also discussed, said Rep. Angus McKelvey, the House negotiator on the bill. However he had concerns that adding in new language for such an amendment could violate rules around the prohibition on gut-and-replace.

Harris trusts that the majority of state employees are likely already acting in an ethical manner, however some of the rules can be nuanced, he said.

“While ignorance is not a defense for violating an ethics code, our intent here is to try to make sure that ignorant mistakes do not happen,” Harris said.

A New State Tree

Hawaii is poised to get a new state symbol. Senate Bill 2059 would make ohia lehua the state’s endemic tree.

The preamble to the bill says that the ohia is “a keystone species of Hawaii’s native forests.” It is also referenced heavily in Hawaiian songs, stories and chants.

“I think if we count it as the state endemic tree and draw attention to its importance, then it will probably draw importance to funding,” Rep. Gene Ward said. “You don’t want your state tree to die off because then that would be embarrassing and really irresponsible.”

The legislature pushed to pass this bill due to the growing spread of rapid ohia death, a fungal disease that has ravaged some ohia forests.

“We are kind of in an emergency preservation because of the sudden rapid ohia death,” said Rep. Ward.

Lawmakers also wanted to pass this bill because the ohia tree has a positive effect on the environment.

“If you want to look at it from an ecological overall point of view, then you know trees eat CO2,” Ward said. “So the more ohia trees, then the more we have as our state symbol and the healthier our environment is going to be.”

The bill is set to go into effect on July 1 of this year.

Obama’s Life

Curious to know where Barack Obama lived growing up in Honolulu? Or where he played basketball? Or where his first job was?

The state may be required to point out those sites under House Bill 2329. The measure requires the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to work with the Hawaii Tourism Authority come up with a list of locations to place historic markers on sites important to Obama.

HB 2329 would require the state to place markers at sites important to President Barack Obama. Anthony Quintano/Civil Beat/2016

For locations that are on privately owned properties, landmarks will only be placed near or on the property if the property owner allows it.

Ward claimed that this bill was difficult to pass while homeowners who live in these historical landmarks started to feel uncomfortable.

“Homeowners where his parents lived and raised him in the first few months put up a big wall in front of their house because they were getting so many gawkers and so many lookers and rubberneckers so they were kind of feeling harassed,” said Rep. Ward.

For some members of the conference committee, the push for this bill to pass was because it honors the state of Hawaii.

Ward also had personal reasons for voting in favor of the markers.

“His parents met and got married in the same place I met and married my wife at (the UH Manoa) Jefferson Hall in the Japanese garden,” Ward said, adding he and his wife were also students at the East-West Center.

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