A Flurry Of Deal-Making At The Hawaii Legislature As End Of Session Looms
Originally published in Honolulu Civil Beat, April 25, 2019
Chad Blair, Kirstin Downey & Blaze Lovell
Hawaii lawmakers on Thursday moved on bills to tax short-term rentals, reform the bail system and require automatic recounts in close elections.
But many controversial bills have been postponed until Friday, the last day of conference committees.
They include bills decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, establishing a prison oversight commission, increasing the state minimum wage, allowing automatic voter registration and ranked choice voting, and taxing real estate investment trusts.
One of the most significant bills to die Thursday would have required county police departments to disclose to the Legislature the identity of an officer upon suspension or discharge beginning in 2021, and to allow for public access to information about suspended cops.
Lawmakers sought to make last-minute amendments to House Bill 285 but ultimately decided they were rushing things and running out of time. The bill can be taken up next year.
But lawmakers agreed to provide $350 million in bond funding to build a new stadium on the site of the old Aloha Stadium in Halawa.
House Bill 1586 would allow the Hawaii Community Development Authority to develop the new stadium as well as a surrounding stadium district. Sen. Glenn Wakai has long championed funding for a new stadium. He said Thursday that he’s tried for over a decade to secure funding.
House members said during a floor session in March that building a new stadium would be Hawaii’s next big public works project after construction wraps on the Honolulu rail line.
Taxing Vacation Rentals
Legislation that critics say could encourage the growth of short-term rentals in the state while permitting the government to profit off it is still in play.
Senate Bill 1292 would require operators of short-term rentals to pay transient accommodation and general excise taxes, with hosting platforms like Airbnb and HomeAway acting as tax collectors on behalf of the state. It would cover rentals that last up to six months.
Owners who fail to register with the state Department of Taxation would face citation and fines ranging from $500 a day for the first violation up to $5,000 a day for violations that have occurred three or more times.
Under the bill, the information would be kept confidential.
Late Thursday on the Senate floor, members voted 18-7 to accept SB 1292, but only after several senators spoke passionately about the negative impacts of short-term rentals on their districts.
Sen. Laura Thielen compared illegal vacation rentals to a crime that prevents local people from being able to own and rent homes. She said other neighborhoods would be destroyed, just as she said has happened with her childhood home of Kailua.
Sen. Kurt Fevella of Ewa Beach said, “We are debating something we shouldn’t be debating on … this is not legal.”
Sen. Gil Riviere of Oahu’s North Shore said the bill gives “tacit approval for illegal activity.”
But Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, supports SB 1292 because “it has $46 million attached to it … I understand people have concerns, but we need to pass a balanced budget.”
The bill awaits a final vote that is expected Friday evening. It needs 13 votes to pass.
Ala Wai Rent In Flux
The proposal to hike rental rates on boaters at the Ala Wai canal is teetering and could go either way.
Senate Bill 1257, a controversial bill that would have raised moorage fees for boaters at the Ala Wai Small Boat Harbor and Keehi Lagoon Harbor has been redrafted several times but lawmakers in the House are undecided on what the percentage increase should be.
“How far apart are we right now on the language?” Sen. Kai Kahele asked the lead conferee from the House, Rep. Ryan Yamane.
Yamane said there is concern about the amount of the proposed increase — 50 percent — as well as the triggers for increases, and when they would occur. Kahele asked if Yamane believed there was no possible chance of a last-minute compromise.
“Let’s give it one more chance,” Yamane said.
The measure was rolled to Friday.
Live-aboard renters have not had any increases in decades. They argue that they should not be paying more when services have deteriorated so badly and harbor conditions have declined. Some have said that a hefty rent increase would force them to move elsewhere; some feared they would become homeless.
Will Minimum Wage Rise?
Hawaii lawmakers have pushed back a decision on increasing the state’s minimum wage until Friday, the last day of conference committee to keep bills alive for the 2019 session.
Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, the lead conferee on House Bill 1191, asked his counterpart Sen. Brian Taniguchi to consider rewriting the bill to incorporate the language of another minimum wage bill that has stalled, Senate Bill 789.
HB 1191 would increase the minimum wage from the current $10.10 to $15 by 2023, and to $17 for full-time state employees and provide a tax credit to small businesses to offset the burden of paying a higher wage.
The latest version of SB 789, which at one point called for raising the wage to $15 by 2023, leaves the dollar amount blank, although it settles on raising the wage by 2024.
It also provides lower minimum wage rates for employees who receive mandatory health care from their employers and includes persons with disabilities “generally applicable” minimum wage requirements.
A wage hike is a shared priority of Gov. David Ige and House and Senate leaders. Some social justice advocates want the figure to be $17 across the board. But business groups have warned that that is too high and could lead to layoffs and higher costs for goods and services.
Bail Reform Coming?
The Legislature appears to be seeking to address some of the problems that were exposed by a blue-ribbon task force in December that said that Hawaii is holding people it arrests for a much longer time than other jurisdictions, partly because the state is charging “excessive” bail bond amounts that people accused of crimes have been unable to pay.
On Thursday, the Legislature passed a proposed new draft of a criminal justice reform measure which will allow defendants to be released on unsecured bonds so that people charged with crimes will be able to get out of jail without committing themselves to repaying large sums of money. It was one of the ideas discussed by the task force.
Senate Bill 192 was originally a more comprehensive measure but the final bill focused more narrowly on the issue of unsecured bail bonds.
The legislation would allow the court to take into consideration the defendant’s employment status and history, family relationships, ties to the community and prior criminal record in determining whether to release the suspect while awaiting trial.
A few other pieces of the task force’s bail reform recommendations showed up in House Bill 1552, which would create an oversight commission to monitor the state’s correctional system.
That bill includes language that requires correctional centers to consider the offender’s likelihood of flight or risk of violence in determining whether the suspect should be released while awaiting trial.
It also calls for the correctional department employees to consider the financial circumstances of suspects, with monetary bail to be set at “reasonable amounts based on all available information.”
The legislation requires the oversight commission to periodically review the population of pretrial detainees to determine if individuals should remain in custody or be released.
On Thursday, HB 1552 was deferred until Friday to determine if appropriations would be approved to permit the new panel to be established.
Harassment Protections Falter
Two bills — one relating to sexual harassment claims and the other to sexual assault and sexual harassment — were deferred indefinitely Thursday, and for identical reasons.
Senate Bill 1041 would not let employers require nondisclosure agreements involving sexual assault and sexual harassment as part of a worker’s conditions of employment. Bosses could also not retaliate against an employee for disclosing harassment or assault.
Senate Bill 1048 would make confidentiality clauses in employment contracts unenforceable when sexual harassment claims arise. It would also require arbitration agreements regarding such claims, and make mandatory confidentiality clauses in an arbitration agreement unenforceable.
Sen. Brian Taniguchi, the lead conferee on both bills, said the Hawaii Civil Rights Commission has “serious concerns” about both bills, although he did not elaborate. Instead, he recommended that lawmakers work on the bills and bring them back next year.
Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson, Taniguchi’s counterpart, agreed.
Afterward, Rep. Cynthia Thielen expressed her disappointment over the outcome of both bills, which were authored by her daughter, Sen. Laura Thielen.
“We need more women in government so that we can have laws that are fair to our gender,” she said.
Cynthia Thielen worried that the same thing would happen to House Bill 18, Thielen’s own bill, which would repeal statutory limitations on the time period in which a survivor of childhood sexual abuse may file a lawsuit.
As Civil Beat reported this week, there seemed to be broad agreement among lawmakers, and yet the bill was still in limbo. Thielen was not named a bill conferee.
In the end, HB 18 was moved to Friday. According to Thielen’s office, Rep. Chris Lee has proposed exempting churches, organizations and government agencies but allow plaintiffs to sue individual perpetrators.
Update: Reached Friday morning, Lee said that what he actually said was that “these are the issues being discussed by some legislators that we might have to take a look at.”
Automatic Recounts Passes
Senate Bill 216 would require automatic recounts in close races where the difference in votes is 0.25% or 100 votes.
The bill doesn’t state how the recounts should be conducted, whether it be by hand or machine. Recount procedures would be left up to the chief elections officer.
SB 216 requires the recount to be completed within 72 hours after the polls close on election day. Candidates would then have three days to file an election challenge after the final results are posted.
Voting reforms were among the Legislature’s top priorities going into this year’s session following the elections challenges that saw Tommy Waters usurp Trevor Ozawa for a Honolulu City Council seat and another that jeopardized Sen. Kurt Fevella’s election in Ewa.
A measure to implement all-mail voting statewide cleared a conference committee earlier this week.
Senate Bill 427 would implement a ranked choice voting system for special federal elections or elections to decide any empty county council seats beginning in 2020. The final version of the bill has been pared down from its original, which would’ve implemented the new system in all elections.
The bill is slated to be decided Friday along with a slew of others that face a 6 p.m deadline to proceed.
Lawmakers are still considering House Bill 673, which a conference committee moved to Friday. The bill would allow medical pakalolo dispensaries to transfer licenses.
It also provides medical marijuana cardholders with greater protections against discrimination form their employers. House representatives take issue with that part of the bill, which was included by the Senate.
The issue is that employers have no way of determining if someone is too impaired to work.
Sen. Roz Baker said that she is working with the House Finance Committee to revise Senate Bill 1405, which would impose greater licensing fees on stores selling liquid for electronic cigarettes.
Lawmakers from the House and Senate Transportation Committees have yet to agree on several bills that would raise the daily surcharge tax on rental vehicles, slap hefty fines on vehicle abandoners and automatically register anyone who applies for a license as a voter in Hawaii.
However, they agreed on Thursday to a measure that would allow drivers to list “X” as a sex designation on licenses instead of “male” or “female.”
A bill that would have created a negotiating committee to discuss increasing the share of ceded land revenues paid by state departments to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs appears dead for the moment.
The House discharged its conferees hours before a hearing on House Bill 402 Thursday afternoon, effectively killing the bill. The likely culprit is disagreements between the House and Senate over their versions of the bill.
The House considered increasing OHA’s share of the ceded land payment from $15 million a year to $35 million a year. The Senate erased the amounts and instead set up the negotiating committee.
The 2019 session is scheduled to end May 2.