It wasn’t all that long ago that the state Senate would join the state House of Representatives on the floor of the House to sing “Hawaii Aloha.”

No matter how difficult the legislative battles, all 76 members joined in one voice to belt out the local standard beloved classic. I seem to recall Sen. Mike Gabbard accompanying his colleagues on guitar.

Late Thursday afternoon, as the House finally adjourned, there was no “Hawaii Aloha.”

There hasn’t been for a couple of sessions now, because, it’s said, of lingering hard feelings between House leadership and dissident Democrats and between the two chambers.

Lawmakers accomplished a lot this session, including a top priority to stimulate economic growth and create jobs. Gov. Neil Abercrombie scored some major legislative success, too. You can read about that in press releases from the Senate and the governor.

On the House floor the final day, Speaker Calvin Say said the accomplishments were due to “a spirit of cooperation” between the executive and legislative branches.

One should not minimize those accomplishments.

But two themes also stood out during the 2012 session — disagreement and exemption.

Disagreement — quite strong at times — between the House and Senate, between House Democrats and House Republicans, and between House leadership and dissidents.

And a slew of exemptions in bills that would bypass existing law in spite of the objections of many.

Not to stretch the analogy, but one might say lawmakers have made an exemption to singing “Hawaii Aloha” because of continuing disagreements.


Late on Friday, as Conference Room 309 filled to standing-room only to hear whether Oshiro and Ige and reached agreement, I half-joked to a House Democrat, “Why isn’t this being held in the auditorium?”

The lawmaker cracked, “Because that would requirement agreement between the House and the Senate.”

Funny, but revealing.

For the second year, House and Senate leadership could not agree on a budget until the final hours of conference committee. This despite the fact that both houses — not to mention the administration — are run by the same party.

Disagreement is at the core of the democratic process, of course. And a process takes time. But, at some point compromise must emerge.

Let me give two examples, both concerning two bills that didn’t get much attention this session and occurring during the final hours of conference committee.

The first concerns House Bill 304, which gives $11 million for public health, education and welfare services.

One would think funding groups like the Alzheimer’s Association, Aloha Chapter; Child and Family Service and Read Aloud America would be no-brainers. Yet, the House and Senate couldn’t agree on the funding levels until late Monday morning.

Afterward, Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland apologized to representatives of the groups for the Legislature’s failure to give them more money.

“We’ll try again next year,” said one of the representatives from PHOCUSED, which stands for Protect Hawaii’s Ohana, Children, Underserved, Elderly and Disabled.

Sen. David Ige, the Ways and Means chair, said on the Senate floor Thursday that lawmakers were able to pay for some much-needed nonprofit support services, “which we haven’t been able to do for many, many years.”

Hoorah for the funding, and for other money dedicated to groups in need this session. But $11 million seems pretty manini when compared with an $11 billion operating budget and hundreds of millions of dollars for capital improvement projects.

Differences between the House and Senate were the biggest obstacle to settling the budget. But, with all the focus on CIP, lawmakers avoided hard choices on pressing matters.

As Ige’s counterpart, Rep. Marcus Oshiro, the House Finance chair, said in his remarks Thursday:

“We have not learned the lessons of the recession from which we emerge. Let us keep in mind that we are barely addressing longer term liabilities of our public workers pension system, the ERS, and health insurance cost of the Employer Union Trust Fund. This is, personally, my biggest disappointment in this budget.”

Now about that other bill: HB 2703 called for creating new state law on food sustainability to promote local produce.

It was co-sponsored by a majority of House representatives, including some Republicans, and fit perfectly with Abercrombie’s “New Day” dream to wean Hawaii off our importing most of our food.

Yet, in a bizarre move that was never fully explained, the lead House conferee on HB 2703, Rep. Clift Tsuji — a bill co-sponsor and chair of House Agriculture — introduced a draft on the penultimate day of conference committee that practically gutted the bill.

Supporters of the bill, including the Sierra Club of Hawaii and the Department of Land and Natural Resources, were astounded. So was Clarence Nishihara, Tsuji’s direct counterpart, who expressed as much to Tusji and others.

The conferees were not able to reach agreement, and the bill died, though it had sailed through the Legislature until that point.

This sort of thing happens all the time. It should not. But there are too many disagreements, some seemingly more having to do with playing politics than reasonable differences.


The other major takeaway from session was the large number of exemptions in bills — some for the better, others not.

Lawmakers write the laws, and it is in their purview to rewrite them. That they did, or in some cases attempted to.

It included exemptions from gifts under the State Ethics Code (which died), exemptions to the ethics code for charter school governance (died) and exempting task force members from the ethics code (passed).

Another bill allowed conservation officers with the Department of Land and Natural Resources to hold off on national certification for Taser training (passed), carved out more religious exemptions for civil unions (passed) and permitted high-rises on two Kakaako parcels (died).

Among the most controversial bills — at least from the vantage point of environmentalists — were measures exempting state and county construction projects from environmental review (died) and to secondary construction projects (passed).

A third controversial bill, concerning transit-oriented development and planning districts, was viewed by many as skirting regulatory review and open-government processes. It died only on the very last day.

The undersea cable bill passed, but not before an earlier version allowed Molokai and Lanai to opt out from the requirement. As drafted, language in the bill still allows for a similar escape clause.

Exemptions and disagreements — that’s just two of the stories to come out of the Legislature this year, for better and worse.

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