Recently filed reports show lobbying expenditures during the 2023 legislative session were higher than any of the past five years.

More than 300 organizations spent almost $5.6 million total on lobbying this legislative session, according to records filed with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. 

Airbnb topped the list of big spenders, followed by tobacco giant Altria Client Services and its affiliates and then by shipping company Young Brothers. 

The ethics commission’s website shows data going back to 2019, and this year’s total is the highest since then. The record cover the period from Jan. 1 through April 30.

Inflation could account for part of this, “but I think there are more groups that require lobbying effort,” said veteran Hawaii lobbyist Bob Toyofuku.

Toyofuku is correct. A slightly higher number of organizations reported lobbying expenditures this year than in previous years, hitting 371 after hovering around 330 -- and their aims vary.

Altria’s $104,000 of lobbying expenditures were countered by $57,000 spent by Tobacco-Free Kids Action Fund, part of the ongoing saga around electronic cigarettes.

The groups have lobbied at the Legislature for years as lawmakers have debated how to regulate vaping products. Last year, then-Gov. David Ige vetoed a bill that would have banned flavored e-cigarettes, citing a loophole that had been added late in the session.

This year, shortly before the last key legislative deadline, chairs of their chambers’ respective health committees Rep. Della Au Belatti and Sen. Joy San Buenaventura announced that they had reached a surprise agreement on a heavily watched electronic cigarette bill

It effectively makes it so electronic smoking devices are priced in parity with ordinary cigarettes, which lawmakers and advocates hope will deter young people from buying them. 

Two staples of the gig economy – Airbnb and Turo, which is like Airbnb but for cars – are ranked in the top six spenders, respectively reporting about $104,000 and about $79,000 in expenditures. 

Both platforms are controversial in Hawaii. 

The state’s sky-high cost of living incentivizes many residents to take part in side-hustles, renting out their extra rooms and cars to both visitors and even fellow residents who might not be able to afford their own. 

But the platforms have also received scorn, with many people complaining that the business model is too often taken to its logical extreme.

Huge fleets of cars are purchased and stored on residential streets; monster homes are constructed in the suburbs with the intention of housing over a dozen renters. 

Not to mention the traditional economic sectors that have been disrupted.

Hilton Grand Vacations, which deals in timeshare resorts, reported spending about $85,000 on lobbying in the hospitality sector this session, another hot topic. 

Hawaii Tourism Authority, which handles marketing for the state’s lucrative tourism sector, came close to being disbanded before the bill that would have done so died late in the session. 

Many people argue that Hawaii’s huge number of visitors – which reached 9.2 million in 2022 and was almost 10.4 million before the pandemic in 2019, as reported by Pacific Business News – is unsustainable for both the state’s natural resources and its human residents. 

When the pandemic showed what Hawaii could look like without so many visitors, this view gained even more currency.

No money ended up being budgeted specifically for HTA, an unusual move that also entailed setting aside $200 million into a fund for Gov. Josh Green to use at his discretion. In a recent session of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight Hawaii program, Green said that he plans to use that money to fund HTA as well as send more money to the Department of Education and the University of Hawaii.

Hilton Grand Vacations ranked just below Ulupono Initiative, a sustainability-focused organization that reported spending about $89,000 this session.

Other prominent spenders this session included Hawaii State Teachers Association and groups in the health care industry like Hawaii Medical Service Association.

These groups’ industries struggle to attract and retain workers in Hawaii, and a swath of legislation related to those issues were discussed this session, including a bill that was recently signed by the governor allowing for a medical interstate compact, which lowers the barrier for out-of-state licensed physicians to work in Hawaii. 

Phantom Fireworks, ranked 14th in expenditures, reported spending $57,600.

FairVote, a national-level advocacy group leading the charge for ranked-choice voting, ranked 194th this session. It reported spending about $7,900.  

Bob Toyofuku a lobbyist sits in a human services hearing at the Capitol. Legislature
Bob Toyofuku is a veteran lobbyist in Hawaii. He's seen here sitting in a human services hearing at the Capitol. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018)

Compensation paid to lobbyists amounted to about $5.2 million of the almost $5.6 million total.

The ways in which public officials are influenced has received extra scrutiny this legislative session, in large part owing to guilty pleas by two former state legislators and two former Maui County officials for taking bribes in a corruption scandal.

Green signed a raft of bills recommended by the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, the State Ethics Commission and the state Campaign Spending Commission, including several related specifically to lobbyists.

House Bill 137, which takes effect in 2025, requires lobbyists to specify the exact measures they’re lobbying on. 

Other measures that Green signed include House Bill 138, mandating that lobbyists complete an ethics training course, and House Bill 142, which codifies into law the ethics commission's prohibition against lobbyists giving gifts.

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