Posted tagged ‘Legislature’

Hawai‘i lawmakers hunger for free meals

March 1, 2011

Ethics laws governing Hawai‘i public officials are so lax that I didn’t think further loosening was possible.

But cutting themselves ethical slack is one of our legislators’ special areas of creativity, and they’ve done it again with a bill up for hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee at 9 a.m. today that would allow lawmakers and other state officials to accept wining and dining from special interests with virtual impunity.

The original version of SB 671, introduced by Democratic Sen. Les Ihara and Republican Sen. Sam Slom, was a noble attempt to tighten reporting requirements on those who seek to influence legislators by requiring monthly disclosures from lobbyists and their clients when the Legislature is in session.

The amended version being heard today is a gut-and-replace job that weakens a current law barring acceptance of any gift intended to influence or reward official action with a more liberal rule that allows gifts of up to $200 from special interests, even if they are intended to influence and reward.

The amended measure allows legislators to accept and even solicit from lobbying interests food and beverages, travel and free tickets to charity, cultural, political or community events.

It’s pretty pathetic when our senators’ brightest idea for better government in the public interest is more freebies for themselves.


State skim = rail scam

February 28, 2011

One factor that greatly erodes confidence in the $5.5 billion O’ahu rail project is the annual attempt of the Legislature to raid funds from the half-cent excise tax enacted by the city to pay for the train.

This year, senators are proposing to “borrow” $200 million from the rail fund to enable them to balance the state’s budget while ducking the tough decisions to get their own financial house in order.

The state is already skimming 10 percent off the top of the transit tax — potentially $400 million over the life of the tax — to pay for nonexistent “administrative costs.” This unnecessarily runs up the cost to O’ahu taxpayers for Hawai‘i’s most expensive public works project by 10 percent right off the bat.

In Mayor Peter Carlisle’s first appearance before the Legislature, he wimpishly let Maui Sen. J. Kalani English extract a promise from him not to try to get the 10 percent back.

It’s no wonder English is so protective of the state’s share of the transit levy; it essentially forces O’ahu taxpayers to subsidize his Maui constituents by paying a 4.5 percent excise tax for some state services while neighbor islanders pay only 4 percent.

The concern is that instead of tightly watching expenses on this enormously costly project to keep it from growing out of control, it’s being treated by lawmakers like a giant slush fund that could turn into the biggest orgy of profiteering Hawai‘i has ever seen.

There is no longer any reasonable doubt that the combination of the city’s excise tax plus whatever federal share emerges from a cost-cutting Congress won’t be enough to build the 20-mile commuter line, much less cover the operating costs.

That city leaders refuse to say how they’ll make up the difference — and that the Legislature and Abercrombie administration shamelessly skim instead of holding the city’s feet to the fire — should make us all very nervous.

Did Abercrombie open the door for a GET increase?

February 17, 2011

Is anybody else starting to feel that Gov. Neil Abercrombie is getting a little wiggly on raising the general excise tax, which he promised not to do in his campaign for governor?

On the KITV4 morning show Monday, Abercrombie wouldn’t rule out a GET increase because of unfunded pension liabilities that are threatening the state’s bonding authority. The pension problem was well-known when he made his campaign promise.

Then yesterday, Abercrombie’s spokeswoman Donalyn Dela Cruz told the Star-Advertiser’s Political Radar that the governor doesn’t support a GET increase and didn’t propose one in his legislative plan, but added, “If a measure to raise the GET passes out of the Legislature because other elements of his plan are not adopted, he will of course consider it as the people’s will.”

Looks to me like a big wink to legislators that if they pass a GET increase, he won’t veto it.

It’s interesting that he’d consider what the Legislature might want to be the “people’s will” ahead of the clear will of the people who elected him on a promise of no GET increase; according to the recent OmniTrak People’s Pulse survey that Dela Cruz was commenting on, 68 percent of the public opposes an excise tax increase.

There was no wiggle room in what Abercrombie promised. His Recovery and Reinvestment Plan released during the campaign stated:

The General Excise Tax will not be raised. Given the public’s lost confidence in government, no reasonable argument can be made to raise the GET. Government will have to make better use of the revenues that it has and grow the economy if more revenues are needed.

In a September candidate forum with Mufi Hannemann, Abercrombie said, “I’m against raising the GET tax without equivocation.”

The governor reiterated his opposition to a GET increase in December, leading House Speaker Calvin Say to declare, “The general excise tax, which is so regressive, is off the table. It’s a Christmas gift to all the general public.”

Are we looking at a special Easter resurrection?

Big box office at the Capitol

February 15, 2011

Here’s hoping the starry eyes of our state legislators won’t prevent them from taking a hard look at the numbers before giving their blessing to a proposal for fat tax breaks to attract movie studios to Hawaii.

Relativity Media and partner Shangri-La have promised to build film studios on O‘ahu and Maui if they get tax incentives that would cost the state an estimated $46.3 million a year. Promoters say it could result in 20 movies a year being filmed in Hawaii.

To sell the idea, they enlisted written testimony from former President Bill Clinton as well as in-person appearances by prominent film stars, and threw a private Valentine’s Day party for lawmakers at a posh hotel.

It’s difficult to evaluate whether it’s a good idea or not based on the information we have, but it’s of concern that the proposal came in late and is sketchy in its details as to the economic benefits Hawai‘i would receive in exchange for the tax credits.

Relativity CEO Ryan Kavanaugh says it’s cost-prohibitive to film in Hawai‘i under the existing tax structure, but we have two TV series currently filming here and a bunch of recent movies.

Legislators in both houses were wise to delay decision-making until they get more information on how much new economic activity we can expect, how many jobs will be created and whether they’ll be quality permanent jobs for local residents or temporary positions that involve a lot of people flying in from the mainland.

A shell game on road repairs

February 14, 2011

The proposal by Gov. Neil Abercrombie and legislators to raise car registration and weight fees by an average of $50 per vehicle is a case study of why people are so cynical about the state’s gyrations to balance an $800 million budget deficit.

Lawmakers say they must raise vehicle fees because the state needs $86 million a year to finance road repairs and there’s only $17 million left in the highway fund to pay for the work.

The choice to taxpayers, they say, is to pay the higher fees or live with Hawaii’s disgracefully potholed roads.

The fallacy in that is, we’ve already paid to fix the roads.

Existing fees have produced plenty enough to keep our roads in good repair, with the fund over $100 million at times. It’s currently light and the roads unfixed only because the Legislature siphoned $145 million from the repair fund to pay for non-highway projects.

The current move to raise vehicle fees carries no guarantee that the Legislature won’t rob the repair fund again once it’s replenished, leaving us right back where we started.

These backdoor tax increases sting, and it’s a sucker bet for taxpayers to quietly accept higher vehicle fees without demanding assurances that lawmakers will discipline themselves and manage the money honestly for its intended purpose.

Civil unions near the finish line

February 9, 2011

During the same-sex marriage fight of the 1990’s, I once suggested settling it by taking a couple of the more reasonable advocates for the two sides — the late Tom Gill for the pro’s and Jack Hoag for the anti’s — and locking them in a room until they found a compromise that most people could agree to.

The idea of civil unions wasn’t fully conceived at the time, but I figured something like that was what they’d ultimately come up with.

Taking the word “marriage” out of the equation and making it purely a matter of equal protection under the law, I thought, might strip away some of the strong emotions that were dividing us.

It took a decade and far better minds than mine to pull the concept together, and emotions have by no means been absent from the civil unions debate of the last three years.

But after the November election decisively settled the question of whether voters were OK with extending the legal rights of marriage to gays, I’ve been impressed by the orderly manner in which the issue has moved through the 2011 Legislature.

Both sides have appeared at House and Senate hearings to have their say, but there’s been nowhere near the crowds or rancor of previous years.

With the Senate already passing a civil unions bill and House approval a virtual certainty after the measure won broad support in the Judiciary Committee yesterday, the bill appears on track to clear the Legislature and be signed into law by Gov. Neil Abercrombie within a month.

The reasonably respectful tone of the discussion this year offers hope that we’ll be able to implement the new law in a way that strengthens our community rather than divides us further.

Time to pass “death with dignity”

February 7, 2011

A bill to allow terminally ill patients the right to physician-assisted suicide is getting a serious hearing in the Legislature this year after an absence of several sessions.

The political waters have calmed since the last time it came up and Oregon has had more years of experience with its law allowing lethal prescriptions for end-of-life patients, upon which our law would be based, with little evidence of abuse. It’s time for Hawai‘i to extend this right.

The law has actually been used in Oregon less than was expected; mostly, it has served to comfort patients that the option is there if they reach the point where unbearable pain and disability rob their lives of all quality.

Opponents worry that the right to die could become a duty to die for elderly and disabled people whose lives are deemed burdensome by those who would benefit from their death.

But the bill before the Legislature isn’t a euthanasia bill, and few advocates of physician-assisted suicide support mercy killings in which the decision to end life is made by anybody except informed individual patients who are certified to be near death, have gone through a waiting period, received counseling on other alternatives and been screened for mental illness, treatable depression and outside pressure.

Overriding other considerations is that it’s a choice most of us would want for ourselves when our time comes. We can no longer justify denying the comfort to those who need it now.

With no universal right answer on a matter so personal, the decision rightfully belongs to the individual, not the state.

An uneasy peace on civil unions?

January 26, 2011

The fight over civil unions seems to have entered the battle-fatigue stage.

Despite extra security and high anxiety among some senators, the Judiciary Committee’s hearing on SB 232, the new vehicle to give gay couples the same legal rights as marrieds, was the most subdued ever on the emotional issue as senators heard divided testimony and then voted 3 to 2 to send the measure to the full Senate for approval.

Demonstrators were scarce, and a hearing that heard 18 hours of often-heated testimony last year was kept to a couple of hours this time, with arguments that were considerably milder in tone.

It seems the result of a strong sense on both sides that it’s a foregone conclusion the measure will pass the Legislature this session and be signed into law by new Democratic Gov. Neil Abercrombie.

Lawmakers approved similar legislation last year, only to have it vetoed but Republican Gov. Linda Lingle.

The issue was pretty much settled in the November election, when sweeping victories by supporters of civil unions made it obvious that a good majority of voters have no serious problem with extending these rights to gay couples.

With the writing so clearly on the wall, it’s a positive sign that the contentious waters seem to be calming so we can move on to implementing the inevitable changes in a smooth and conscientious manner.

Tweet your views on Board of Education; ‘Olelo dispute resolved?

January 7, 2011

Senate Higher Education Chairwoman Jill Tokuda is holding a Twitter town hall from 11:30 a.m. -12:30 p.m. today on the constitutional amendment recently passed by voters to change the state Board of Education from elected to appointed.

The Legislature must enact enabling legislation before the switch can be made, and there are conflicting views on how the appointments should be done.

The intent of the amendment was to hold the governor more accountable for education and many, including Gov. Neil Abercrombie, believe he should be able to appoint whomever he wishes, subject to Senate confirmation.

But some lawmakers have proposed to effectively take the appointments away from the governor — and his accountability — by limiting his choices to as few as two candidates provided by a screening committee.

To participate at, direct questions and comments to @jilltokuda and include the hashtag #askjill in messages. You can keep up with the discussion in real time or catch up with it afterward by following #askjill.

You need a Twitter account to post questions and comments, but not to follow.


In a bit of old business, I’m told that Senate leaders have decided to preserve an  ‘Olelo studio on the fourth floor of the Capitol that legislators use to film communications with their constituents.

House Republicans objected after being told the space would be converted to a hearing room for the Judiciary and Labor Committee.

It seemed resolvable, and good for them if it’s been settled to everybody’s satisfaction.

Who didn’t make Abercrombie’s senatorial cut?

December 28, 2010

I was surprised that local media didn’t press the governor’s office for the Democratic Party lists Gov. Neil Abercrombie chose from when they reported his appointments of Malama Solomon and Rep. Maile Shimabukuro to replace Sens. Dwight Takamine, who joined his Cabinet, and Colleen Hanabusa, who was elected to the U.S. House.

Under rules passed by the Legislature, the governor is limited to appointing from a list of three candidates provided by the party of the departing lawmaker.

It was impossible to evaluate Abercrombie’s choices without seeing the pools he chose from, so I asked for the information and the governor’s office was reasonably forthcoming in providing it, considering that I made my initial request on Christmas eve.

To cut to the chase, Abercrombie picked Shimabukuro for the seat in District 21, representing Ko Olina and the Waianae Coast, over Cynthia Rezentes, a Neighborhood Board activist and former House candidate, and Hanalei Aipoalani, who previously ran for Congress and the state House.

It was an interesting pick in the context of the turmoil over organizing the House. Shimabukuro was one of the 18 members of the dissident faction led by Reps. Sylvia Luke and Scott Saiki that has prevented Calvin Say’s re-election as speaker.

If they’re so inclined, the Democratic Party and Abercrombie could appoint a replacement who would break the deadlock and give Say the final vote he needs to keep his job and organize the House. Or they could lend support to the dissidents by doing the opposite.

Solomon, an Abercrombie ally during her previous stint in the Senate, was selected for the seat in the 1st District, representing Waimea, the Hamakua Coast and parts of Hilo, over state Rep. Mark Nakashima and Kenneth Goodenow, a lawyer, former Hawaii County Clerk and onetime O‘ahu legislator representing Waimanalo.

According to the Hawaii Tribune-Herald, other applicants who didn’t make the party’s cut were former mayor and state senator Lorraine Inouye, Hilo councilman Donald Ikeda and attorney Robert Marx, Abercrombie’s Big Island campaign co-chairman.

The governor still has to replace Big Island Sen. Russell Kokubun, who also joined his Cabinet.

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