More than 250 bills remain under consideration as the Hawaii Legislature enters the home stretch of this year’s session.

Hawaii lawmakers gave preliminary approval to bills Tuesday that would prohibit gun owners from carrying concealed firearms in many public places, and would create a system of full public funding for candidates seeking election to state and county offices.

The state House and Senate also advanced strikingly similar drafts of a bill that would abolish the Hawaii Tourism Authority and replace it with a new Office of Tourism and Destination Management.

Other measures that won tentative approval would expand the Preschool Open Doors preschool program to 3-year-old children, and impose a tax on e-cigarettes comparable to the tax on tobacco products.

In all, lawmakers positioned more than 250 bills for further discussion and negotiations in closed-door conference committee meetings in the weeks ahead. The Legislature is approaching the home stretch of this year’s session, which is due to adjourn on May 4.

Members of the Legislature wrap up a series of floor votes. Lawmakers advanced bills dealing with firearms restrictions, tourism, taxes on e-cigarettes, and more. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

During the conference committee period, the bills will live or die as lawmakers hammer out differences between the House and Senate versions during closed-door deliberations, with little explanation provided.

Sensitive Places

The House voted 41-9 in favor of Senate Bill 1230, which would prohibit gun owners from bringing their concealed firearms into a variety of public places. Advocates for gun owners have promised to sue the state if the bill passes and becomes law.

The measure prohibits gun owners from bringing loaded or unloaded firearms into government buildings including courts, hospitals or clinics, bars or restaurants that serve alcohol, and movie theaters and venues for athletic events.

Guns would also be banned from schools and public or private colleges, parks and playgrounds, homeless shelters, polling places, banks, and any public rally or protest.

The bill is a response to a U.S. Supreme Court decision in New York State Rifle and Pistol Association v. Bruen, which upended laws in Hawaii, New York and a number of other states that deal with the carrying of concealed firearms.

That ruling declared last year that U.S. Constitution’s Second and 14th Amendments “protect an individual’s right to carry a handgun for self-defense outside the home.”

The high court ruled in that same decision that states such as New York and Hawaii cannot require that applicants for permits to carry a concealed firearm demonstrate any “special need” to carry a gun outside the home.

Hawaii’s police departments issue permits to carry firearms, and the Supreme Court ruling required that the police overhaul their permitting procedures.

The Bruen decision already prompted the Honolulu City Council to pass a measure restricting where firearms can be carried. SB 1230 would incorporate similar restrictions into state law.

Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee Chairman David Tarnas said SB 1230 complies with the Supreme Court decision. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Republican Rep. Elijah Pierick told his colleagues on the House floor Tuesday that “this measure would curtail our Second Amendment rights.” He said he could not vote in favor of the bill because he took an oath as a lawmaker to defend the constitution.

But House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Committee Chairman David Tarnas said SB 1230 was “carefully crafted” to ensure it complies with the Bruen decision.

“We are allowed to set up a reasonable system of regulation for concealed carry weapons,” Tarnas said, adding that the bill was designed to do that.

Hawaii Moms Demand Action and Students Demand Action, part of a coalition affiliated with Everytown for Gun Safety, praised the House vote.

Those groups said in a statement that Hawaii has some of the “strongest gun laws in the country,” and credited those laws with the state’s low per-capita firearms death rate. Hawaii averages 4.2 firearms deaths per 100,000 people, the second-lowest rate in the nation, according to the group.

Andrew Namiki Roberts, director of the Hawaii Firearms Coalition, has argued that SB 1230 is too restrictive, and promised the coalition will sue the state if the measure passes.

Roberts said at a public hearing last week that only law-abiding citizens will be affected by the law, while criminals will continue to take firearms wherever they please.

The measure passed in a 41-9 vote. Pierick and fellow Republican Reps. David Alcos, Diamond Garcia, Lauren Matsumoto, Kanani Souza and Gene Ward joined Democratic Reps. Cedric Gates, Darius Kila and Sam Kong in voting no. Rep. Chris Todd was absent.

Senators and staff confer at the State Capitol during a pause in the voting. The House and Senate gave preliminary approval to more than 250 bills, and will discuss the measures in conference committees in the weeks ahead. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Public Campaign Funding

The House also gave tentative approval to Senate Bill 1543, which would create a comprehensive system of public financing for campaigns.

The measure would provide public funding for candidates ranging from up to $20,000 for candidates for Hawaii County Council to as much as $2.5 million for gubernatorial candidates. To qualify for public funding, the candidates would need to collect nominal $5 donations from registered voters.

Candidates who choose to participate in the public funding program would be barred from accepting campaign contributions from any other source.

The cost of each publicly funded campaign would vary depending on the number of candidates who participate and qualify, but staff at the Campaign Spending Commission estimated the 2026 election would cost about $10 million in public funding if the bill becomes law.

There was no floor debate on the public funding bill on Tuesday, and the vote in favor of the measure was 48-2 with only Republicans Pierick and Garcia voting no. Todd was absent for the vote.

Lowering The Age For Preschool

The Legislature is also looking to expand Hawaii’s Preschool Open Doors program, which provides families with financial assistance to send their children to preschool. House Bill 961 passed its third of three readings in the Senate on Tuesday, giving it a path to the hubbub of conference committee. 

In its current form, the program is limited in scope to benefiting 4-year-old children in the year before they attend kindergarten. The proposed expansion would lower the age to 3, starting from two years before they attend kindergarten.

The measure would also give the director of the Executive Office on Early Learning more latitude on deciding which preschools are eligible to receive funding.

The amounts that Preschool Open Doors provides for each child vary based on factors such as the parent’s monthly income, how many children the family applies for, and whether the preschool is accredited or not. 

Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke has pushed hard for universal access to preschool, and this bill – along with last year’s $200 million appropriation for expanding preschool facilities, and another bill this year to subsidize higher pay for preschool workers – is a part of that effort. 

According to testimony from the Department of Human Services, the proposed expansion of Preschool Open Doors would add almost $40 million to the program’s cost, which is now about $12 million per year. 

The bill itself leaves appropriations blank – ensuring that the exact dollar amount will become clear as lawmakers haggle over it during conference committee.

ALOHA Homes Proposal Advances

Sen. Stanley Chang’s signature ALOHA Homes proposal cleared the House, making this legislative session the most promising yet for his initiative to revamp Hawaii’s troubled housing market. 

Chang, who chairs the Senate Housing Committee, first introduced an ALOHA Homes bill in 2019. Though a study was commissioned, the bill only made it through the Senate before it stalled in the House – the beginning of a pattern that was just broken.

Republican Sen. Brenton Awa during floor voting on the Senate floor. An expansion of the Preschool Open Doors program to include 3-year-old children is advancing at the Legislature. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

ALOHA Homes is famously based on the Singapore model of housing, where the state sells long-term leases to residents.

Ordinarily, a buyer purchases outright both the home and the land the home is on. That gives the buyer more freedom to sell their home as its value appreciates – but it also means that the buyer has to spend more money up front. 

Chang instead advocates for selling 99-year leases to eligible buyers, which House Bill 865 defines as residents and their spouses who don’t own other real property. The buyer can still sell their housing unit, but the state has first right of refusal, theoretically preventing homes from morphing too much into moneymaking vehicles.

The bill would implement a pilot program to sell one development of these leases on non-ceded, state-owned land within a one mile radius of one of Honolulu’s rail stations. The exact location would be chosen by the Hawaii Community Development Authority. 

Will The Hawaii Tourism Authority Be Abolished?

The House and Senate, meanwhile, appear to be on track to approve nearly identical measures — Senate Bill 1522 and House Bill 1375 — to abolish the Hawaii Tourism Authority and replace it with a proposed new Office of Tourism and Destination Management.

House Tourism Committee Chairman Sean Quinlan said the millions of visitors who come to Hawaii each year want an “authentic vacation,” and thanks to social media have inundated parts of the islands that used to be little known spots for locals.

That calls for investment in destination management to “put people over profits,” Quinlan said. “Destination management” is described in the bill as a “holistic process that ensures that tourism adds value to the economy, social fabric, and ecology of communities.”

But Ward opposed the bill, arguing the HTA has successfully marketed Hawaii to the world for years. Lawmakers are now attempting to “punish them for succeeding. That’s taking merit and turning it on its head,” the Republican representative said.

The House voted 45-5 in favor of the bill, with Alcos, Garcia, Matsumoto, Pierick and Ward opposed. Todd was absent. The Senate is scheduled to vote on its latest version of the measure on Thursday.

Taxing E-Cigarettes

The House also unanimously approved a bill that would impose a tax on e-cigarettes comparable to the heavy taxes the state has levied for many years on cigarettes and other tobacco products.

Senate Bill 975 would include e-liquid and electronic smoking devices in the definition of “tobacco products” under state law, and impose a tax that is a percentage of the wholesale price of those products.

The specific percentage of the tax is left blank in the bill and will have to be decided later in the session during conference committee negotiations if the bill survives. Taxing electronic smoking devices has been proposed repeatedly in previous sessions, but never passed.

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