However, difficult details still need to be hammered out before any bills get final approval.

House and Senate lawmakers voted Tuesday to advance an array of tax breaks for hard-pressed, low-income Hawaii residents, but left many of the difficult details for later.

Some of the key tax measures approved in preliminary floor votes would expand the state renters’ tax credit for low-income residents; adjust the state earned income tax credit for low-income families to make it more generous and create a new child tax credit for low-income families with children.

But key provisions in most of the tax relief bills were left blank for the time being, which is standard practice for lawmakers as they debate bills and mull the state’s finances at mid-session. The Legislature will reach the midpoint of this year’s 60-day session next Tuesday.

Lawmakers also advanced measures to legalize recreational use of marijuana, to authorize police officers to write tickets for petty offenders instead of arresting them and to relax penalties for jaywalking.

Lawmakers took preliminary floor votes on an assortment of bills to provide tax relief, but it is still unclear which proposals will emerge at the end of session, and how much help they will provide for Hawaii residents. (Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat/2023)

On the tax front, one of Gov. Josh Green’s signature proposals from his gubernatorial campaign last year — his plan to eliminate the excise tax on food and over-the-counter medicines — may be dead for this year.

The administration introduced the food excise tax cut idea as Senate Bill 1348 and House Bill 1050, but neither measure made it as far as the House and Senate floor voting on Tuesday.

House Finance Committee Chairman Kyle Yamashita said it is still possible lawmakers will revive Green’s excise proposal, but he wants to move cautiously on bills that will affect state excise tax collections.

The excise tax is the largest single source of revenue for the state, and the administration estimates the food excise exemption measure Green proposed would cost the state $119 million per year in lost tax collections.

Green’s proposal to provide state income tax relief to many Hawaii residents fared better in the House, which gave tentative approval to a draft of that plan Tuesday as part of House Bill 954.

The governor wants to adjust state income tax brackets, standard deductions and personal exemptions to provide income tax relief to people with an array of income levels. Green’s proposal also would increase state income taxes slightly for residents at the highest income levels.

The Senate so far has declined to consider Green’s income tax plan, which the administration estimates would cost the state about $313 million a year in lost revenue.

Senate President Ron Kouchi said the Senate is concerned that Green’s proposals were based on a “one-time revenue windfall” of federal funding during the pandemic that created the state’s projected budget surplus of about $2 billion this year.

“The concern is what will be sustainable on an annual basis, and will we have the revenue stream that supports that,” Kouchi said.

He also said the tax relief package in total may be too complicated for people to tap into. 

“We want it to be simple,” he said. “Make sure the people getting the money won’t have a complicated bureaucracy of paperwork to go through to put money in their pocket. They need the money now.”

Opening Day of 2020 Legislature Senate President Ron Kouchi with Lt Gov and his wife during opening session.
Senate President Ron Kouchi with Gov. Josh Green. Kouchi said the Senate wants the tax relief package that wins final approval this session to be simple and “sustainable.” (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020)

The House advanced its own package of tax relief plans on Tuesday, which included House Bill 233 to create a new child tax credit that would be distributed to low-income Hawaii families in monthly installments.

That plan is modeled on the federal child credit payments that were distributed nationally during the coronavirus pandemic. The proposed state credit would be available to families with adjusted gross incomes of $60,000 or less, but the current draft of the bill does not specify the size of the credit that each family would receive.

That measure was unanimously approved by the House, and now goes to the Senate for further consideration. Lawmakers will have opportunities later to insert language in the bill to specify the amount of the credit per family if the bill continues to advance.

The House also unanimously approved a proposal to expand the state earned income tax credit to provide more help for working families, which is part of House Bill 954. But the exact amount of the expanded credit was not specified.

House Speaker Scott Saiki has said the House will be pushing particularly hard for that idea, in part because the earned income tax credit targets low-income working families who urgently need the help.

The House also gave preliminary approval to a bill to increase the food tax credit for low-income families to at least partially offset the impact of the state excise tax on food.

Meanwhile, state senators moved ahead with their own proposal Tuesday, unanimously approving Senate Bill 55 to increase the renters’ tax credit for the first time in decades. That bill would provide tax credits of $100 to $200 per exemption for families who earn less than $80,000 per year and rent their homes.

On the revenue side of the ledger, the House gave preliminary approval to House Bill 537, which would redefine “tobacco products” in a way that is designed to encompass e-cigarettes. The aim of that bill is to impose a wholesale tax on e-cigarettes that is comparable to the wholesale tax of cigarettes.

The Senate gave tentative approval to Senate Bill 362 to increase the conveyance tax rate on sales of non-owner occupied homes worth more than $2 million, and approved Senate Bill 924 to eliminate the mortgage interest tax deduction on second homes.

FILE - Jeremy Baldwin tags young cannabis plants at a marijuana farm operated by Greenlight, Oct. 31, 2022, in Grandview, Mo. Marijuana advocates are looking toward their next states to target after experiencing some mixed results in the recent elections. Cannabis legalization measures for adults passed in Maryland and Missouri but failed in Arkansas, North Dakota and South Dakota. Supporters already are looking toward a March legalization vote in Oklahoma. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel, File)
The Hawaii Senate voted to legalize recreational use of small amounts of marijuana. The Senate took a similar vote in 2021, but the bill died in the state House that year. (AP Photo/Charlie Riedel/2022)

And once again the Senate advanced a bill that would legalize the recreational use of small amounts of marijuana.

Senate Bill 669 would allow individuals to grow up to six cannabis plants at an enclosed location for personal use. It also legalizes and decriminalizes the possession of up to one ounce of marijuana.

The bill also sets up a licensing scheme for commercial growers and dispensaries, which would be overseen by a new Hawaii Cannabis Regulatory Authority. Sens. Sharon Moriwaki, Lorraine Inouye and Brenton Awa voted “no” on the measure.

Moriwaki said it would be “premature” to legalize recreational pot. She also did not think the regulations in the bill were strong enough and didn’t buy arguments that the measure could be beneficial because of the increased tax revenues the state could get from legalization. The state Department of Taxation projects annual tax collections on marijuana sales to hit $37.5 million by 2028.

“It makes little sense to use increased tax revenues to justify more drug use,” Moriwaki said.

Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, one of the bill’s supporters, said the prohibition on marijuana, like the prohibition on alcohol in the 1920s, has been ineffective. He pointed to the fairly stringent regulatory scheme set up in the bill and argued that it could help to eliminate a segment of the black market in Hawaii that profits from illicit marijuana sales.

“It’s time to take these products off of the black market, to regulate them effectively, to bring in segments of the community that have been operating in the shadows,” Keohokalole said.

A bill similar to SB 669 died in the House in 2021 without getting a hearing.

Measures Protecting Abortion

The Senate also passed measures protecting doctors who perform abortions in Hawaii. 

Senate Bill 1 would place into law provisions that would bar the state from cooperating with out-of-state lawsuits targeting doctors in Hawaii who perform abortions on people who may have traveled to the islands for that procedure. The bill would codify an executive order issued by former Gov. David Ige in October.

Hawaii became the first state to legalize abortion in 1970, three years before the Supreme Court’s decision in the landmark case of Roe v. Wade, which determined that the U.S. Constitution protects a women’s right to an abortion.

Fears that doctors could be targeted were magnified after states like Texas passed laws giving citizens the right to sue abortion providers in other states. Those laws followed the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in the case Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization, which overturned a women’s federal right to abortion.

Lawmakers, lawyers, doctors and other advocates who support abortion access rallied in front of the Hawaii State Library near a statue of former U.S. Rep. Patsy Mink to celebrate the bill’s passage.

Lawmakers approved Senate Bill 1, which spells out in state law that the state will not cooperate with out-of-state lawsuits targeting doctors in Hawaii who perform abortions. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

OB-GYN Shandhini Raidoo called abortion “an essential part of health care.”

“Some people come to me with very wanted pregnancies but who have discovered a devastating and lethal fetal diagnosis. Some patients come to me after developing a complication in pregnancy that endangers their own life. And some come to me whose pregnancy makes achieving their future goals … all the more difficult,” Raidoo said.

SB 1 also would allow physician assistants to perform abortions and remove requirements that abortions can only be performed in hospitals.

Republican Sens. Kurt Fevella and Brenton Awa voted “no” on SB 1 as did Democratic Sen. Mike Gabbard.

Decriminalizing Jaywalking

A majority of senators also voted to move along a bill that virtually decriminalizes jaywalking.

Senate Bill 926 would allow pedestrians to cross streets as long as they are in no immediate danger of being hit by a car. The Senate Judiciary Committee’s report on SB 926 says that existing pedestrian laws are “needlessly restrictive” and have a disproportionate impact on people who do not drive and primarily rely upon walking as a means of transportation.

“Additionally, in many situations, the perception and judgment of pedestrians can be more effective in mitigating injuries than traffic lights or street markings,” the report said.

The state Department of Transportation and the Honolulu Police Department opposed the bill due to safety concerns.

DOT wrote that the bill would give pedestrians “the freedom to determine their own rules of the road.” Officer Statson Tanaka, HPD’s acting major of the traffic division, said in written testimony that drivers may not be expecting someone to step into the road in an area that’s not a marked crosswalk.

Sens. Brandon Elefante, Fevella and Moriwaki voted “no” on the measure. There was no discussion on the bill during the Senate’s floor session. SB 926 now moves to the House for consideration.

The longest and most heated debate in the House centered on House Bill 1336, which is intended to “reduce the number of unnecessary arrests” by authorizing police to issue tickets in lieu of arresting people for misdemeanors and petty misdemeanors.

Rep. Sonny Ganaden said Honolulu police support the bill because “an arrest for a minor, non-violent charge entangles an officer for hours, ratchets up the danger of an interaction, and leaves an officer unable to assist in other more serious offenses that arise during a shift.”

The bill would also require that for people who qualify for release on bail — which would mean they aren’t a flight risk or a danger to others — the court must set bail “in an amount that the person is able to afford”

Republican Rep. David Alcos said the bill is being offered up because Hawaii jails are overcrowded and the state doesn’t want to hold prisoners. “This is a danger to our society, it’s increasing more crime on our streets, so we need to protect our families,” he said.

Rep. Daniel Holt, a Democrat, said “this measure makes police officers be judges on the spot without having time to adequately prepare.”

The bill passed in a 32-19 vote. Voting against the measure were Reps. Micah Aiu, Alcos, Diamond Garcia, Cedric Gates, Holt, Kirstin Kahaloa, Darius Kila, Lisa Kitagawa, Rachele Lamosao, Nicole Lowen, Scot Matayoshi, Lauren Matsumoto, Scott Nishimoto, Elijah Pierick, Sean Quinlan, Jackson Sayama, Kanani Souza, Adrian Tam and Gene Ward.

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