Measures include paid family leave, term limits and tax breaks for Hawaii. But other bills call for death to sex traffickers, teaching of fetal growth and open carry of handguns.

The minority caucus in the Hawaii House of Representatives tried something different this year when coming up with its priority bills for the 2024 session.

Reps. Lauren Matsumoto, Diamond Garcia, Elijah Pierick, David Alcos and Gene Ward hit the road for a listening tour of Oahu communities — Kaneohe, Kapolei, Mililani and Hawaii Kai. (All the current Republicans in the Legislature reside on Oahu.)

Instead of doing most of the talking, as can be the case at town halls, the five legislators conducted what Matsumoto calls a “live interactive survey” on what residents feel are the most important issues facing the state.

What the lawmakers heard directly influenced the legislation the caucus later crafted and introduced. It includes bills that have never gained traction in the past — eliminating the general excise tax on food and medical service and splitting the appointed school board into several elected boards.

Another measure would allow 12 weeks of paid family leave for state and county employees. Voters could also be asked to decide through constitutional amendment if state legislators should be limited to 12 years in office.

The House of Representatives minority leader Lauren Matsumoto speaks on behalf of her Republican colleagues during opening day of the legislative session Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2024, in Honolulu. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)
Hawaii House of Representatives Minority Leader Lauren Matsumoto spoke on behalf of her Republican colleagues during opening day of the legislative session. Matsumoto said the GOP caucus package of bills deserves to be heard. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2024)

Matsumoto, the minority leader, characterizes these and other measures as a practical, reasonable approach to governing, an approach that distinguishes the local House GOP from more right-wing caucuses in many mainland states and in the U.S. Congress.

“I think people always look at the national Republicans or what they see on the news,” she said. “But if you actually look at the bills that we put in our package, I think most people would agree that it’s a pretty common sense approach.”

Matsumoto pointed to a bill asking the state’s Legislative Reference Bureau to conduct a study of Hawaii’s current government financial database systems with other state programs that are more “transparent and efficient,” as the bill puts it.

“Government transparency bills are important things that need to be heard and, quite frankly, are often not heard by the other side,” she said, meaning majority Democrats. “And so I think that’s my main message.”

While much of the caucus package leans mainstream, there is also legislation that could be described as right of center.

For example, one measure is described by the caucus as a “stand your ground” proposal. It would eliminate the requirement that an individual retreat from their home or workplace during an armed confrontation.

Because of a recent ramp up in violent crimes, the bill states, “it is more imperative than ever to grant residents the right to defend themselves in situations of grave danger, even using deadly force when necessary.”

Another top bill for House Republicans would set up an “Ohana Bill of Rights” for parents and guardians of minor children “to direct the upbringing, education, health care, and mental health of their minor child.”

Those rights might include the right to consent in writing before a biometric scan of their child is made, shared or stored; the right to a list of books and other reading materials contained in the library of their child’s school and the right to inspect them; and the right to know if their child’s school operates or facilitates athletic programs or activities that permit an individual “whose biological sex is male to participate in an athletic program or activity that is designated for individuals whose biological sex is female,” according to the bill.

As of Thursday, only one of the 19 bills had been heard. It called for prohibiting cost-sharing requirements for breast examinations. Similarly, only one minority caucus bill was heard last year before its deferral. It was an attempt to set up seven school boards.

For Republicans, getting bills passed is often a simple numbers game. There are only six of them in the 51-member House. One member, Republican Kanani Souza, had a falling out with her colleagues last session and so was not involved in the listening tour or caucus package.

There is also some mystery over what bills exactly comprise the caucus package. The link to the House Minority Caucus Package Report lists 56 bills for this session, not 19. Matsumoto explained that the priority bills only run from House Bill 1699 to House Bill 1718.

“It is confusing,” she said, indicating that she’d like that to be clarified in future lists, as is the case for Democrats’ House Majority Caucus package.

Other bills listed on the legislative website for the caucus — but which Matsumoto said are not actually caucus priorities — could be called politically conservative and not unlike what one might find in red states. All are also identified by the legislative website as being part of the House Minority Caucus.

They include ones forcing the Department of Education to designate “sex‑specific teams” for the purpose of gender equality in school sports. “The question of transgender athletes competing against biologically opposite genders has stirred controversies across the nation,” the bill says.

Another measure would require that student health and sexuality health education programs “include discussion of fetal growth and development.” It would include a high-definition ultrasound video “at least three minutes in duration, showing the development of the brain, heart, sex organs, and other vital organs in early fetal development.”

One of the House Minority Caucus bills for 2024. “No person doing business in the State shall knowingly or intentionally expose any other person to a product developed or tested using human cells unless the product bears a warning label,” the bill explains. (Screenshot/2024)

There is also legislation from some House Republicans allowing “any qualified applicant” be granted a license to carry unconcealed a pistol or revolver and ammunition.

And another bill would provide a sentence of death or life imprisonment without possibility of parole for people convicted for sex trafficking of a minor. Hawaii, it should be noted, does not have a death penalty.

Whether those ideas and others have merit is up to lawmakers to decide, of course. What frustrates Matsumoto is that most Republican bills will never get a hearing.

“Once you get a hearing, that’s when people have the opportunity to testify in support or opposition of bills,” she said. “And I think it’s important to be able to hear different ideas.”

Matsumoto added, “I wish there was a little more balance in the hearing of bills from both sides.”

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