Topics of discussion included doomed cannabis bills and a potential override of the governor’s first veto.

This year’s legislative session – with its new governor and over a dozen new lawmakers – went relatively smoothly.

At least that was Sen. Chris Lee’s assessment when asked about it during Wednesday’s Civil Cafe, the discussion hosted by Civil Beat at the Capitol, where a panel of reporters and lawmakers looked back at the session’s bills.

Along with their autopsies on the cannabis bill and the public financing for elections bill, lawmakers also commented on outstanding business like the endangered Hawaii Tourism Authority and the possibility of the House joining the Senate to override Gov. Josh Green’s first veto.

Panel members included — from left to right — Rep. Nadine Nakamura, Rep. Dee Morikawa, Sen. Chris Lee, and reporters Blaze Lovell and Kevin Dayton. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Panelists included Lee, the Senate Assistant Majority Whip; House Majority Leader Rep. Nadine Nakamura; and House Majority Floor Leader Rep. Dee Morikawa. 

The panel was moderated by Civil Beat reporter Kevin Dayton and reporter Blaze Lovell, who recently stepped away from Civil Beat to begin his yearlong Local Investigations Fellowship with the New York Times. 

HTA And Potential House Veto Override

The Hawaii Tourism Authority had a rocky last few weeks, with legislators almost passing a bill that would’ve nixed the entire agency. 

That measure fell apart at the last minute during conference committee – but as the bill advanced, lawmakers neglected to fully fund the authority. It typically commands an annual budget of about $60 million, but this year it might have to make do with about $30 million remaining of unspent pandemic money. 

This year’s budget bill does not contain money for HTA, though the governor is currently in talks about finding other funding sources for the agency, Nakamura said. 

Dayton asked whether that means HTA will have to make do with its leftover funds until next year’s legislative session. 

“That’s the goal,” said Nakamura as the audience laughed. 

Nakamura brought up that the now-dead bill had some good measures in it that could still be adopted, like having positions dedicated to tourism management within state and county executive offices. 

She and Morikawa arrived late from a caucus session, where they and their fellow Democratic House members had met behind closed doors to discuss in detail measures like the state budget bill. 

The Senate voted Tuesday to override Gov. Josh Green’s first veto, leaving the House to decide on Thursday — the last day of the session — whether they’ll join the effort. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

That budget bill – and other outstanding bills – will need to be voted on on Thursday, since it’ll be the last day of this year’s legislative session. 

It will also be the day when the House might join the Senate in overriding Green’s first veto.

The Senate voted Tuesday to override Gov. Josh Green’s first veto of his administration, concerning a bill — Senate Bill 921 — that would essentially extend the liability period for developers over their condominium projects. 

Developers say that this increased liability will push their insurance premiums up, passing costs to residents and slowing down construction. This is the argument that Green included in his governor’s message announcing the veto.

But senators felt strongly about helping a narrow demographic of condo residents, who they said were unjustly disadvantaged by a loophole in the law that allows developers to avoid responsibility for their sometimes shoddy construction. Twenty-four out of 25 voted to override.

If the House also decides to override the veto, it’ll have to do that on Thursday. Nakamura said she couldn’t answer whether that’ll happen, since the majority isn’t allowed to tally a vote during caucus.

Cannabis And Publicly Financed Elections

Two closely watched topics that fell short of what many observers hoped for included legalizing recreational cannabis and publicly financing election campaigns. 

These two things could sound good in the abstract, lawmakers said. But actually implementing them is a trickier prospect.

Lee had introduced Senate Bill 375 to legalize recreational cannabis, and the Senate passed to the House a version from Sen. Joy San Buenaventura. But San Buenaventura’s version, Senate Bill 669, stalled in the House anyway – just like last year. 

“I think there’s a strong interest in looking at legalizing recreational marijuana,” said Nakamura. “But I think the vehicle that was sent over by the Senate had a lot of concerns.” 

She referenced testimony from state departments. The Department of the Attorney General had concerns about record expungement; the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs had comments saying that banking and electronic payments might be difficult because of federal law. 

Some testifiers of previous versions had concerns about the bill setting up a market that they saw as favoring dispensaries over growers. 

Nakamura said that further study is needed to craft a workable bill.

The doomed public financing for campaigns bill, Senate Bill 1543, was also brought up, and Morikawa said that the big issue was one of actually financing the bill.

It originally called for $30 million before being whittled down to $7.5 million, eventually falling to $700,000 before the bill was put out of its misery.

The original ask was very large, said Morikawa. It would essentially be soliciting $30 each from the state’s population of about a million taxpayers — something that the current partial public financing system already struggles to do on a smaller scale.

Perhaps if the bill was written in a way that required more initial $5 donations to prove a campaign’s viability, she said, it would be an easier sell. The bill would then theoretically not require so large an appropriation.

But in its original state, if the government were to ask taxpayers for this money, Morikawa said, “I don’t think that you would get very favorable responses.”

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