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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 12, 2002

How Senate committee handled van-cam issue

By Mike Leidemann
Advertiser Transportation Writer

For pure drama (and a bit of farce) you couldn't beat last week's session at the state Capitol in which three Senate committees voted to get rid of those van cams.

The Senate Transportation Committee hearing earlier this month on traffic cameras drew a capacity crowd.

Advertiser library photo • Feb. 6, 2002

On display for anyone to see (Hello, 'Olelo?) were all the elements of a rather dysfunctional body that usually does a better job of masking its flaws behind closed doors.

The session had plenty of theatrical elements: heated exchanges between aspiring political rivals, last-minute subterfuge, surprise testimony, whispered caucuses, embarrassing silences.

Amendments were proposed one minute and withdrawn the next; senators would vote on an issue, then ask later for more information about it.

At issue was a Senate bill to repeal the 2000 law authorizing the traffic photo enforcement program that has galvanized public opinion like nothing since the effort to legalize same-sex marriage.

Camera supporters, headed by Senate Transportation Committee chairman Cal Kawamoto, had been trying for weeks to head off this moment.

Yes, the program is flawed, mistakes were made in rolling it out, and public opinion is against us, but give us a chance to fix it, they argued. The program could be salvaged with changes already being made by the Transportation Department, they said.

But on the eve of Thursday's committee decision-making session, none of that was playing very well in the community or around the Capitol. Passage of the repeal bill seemed likely.

You could tell by the way Kawamoto hastily proposed a two-week moratorium on issuing tickets just a few days earlier. You could tell by the way Sen. Ron Menor proposed a more reasonable moratorium just hours before the scheduled vote. You could tell by the way Gov. Ben Cayetano kept telling everyone that the program needed to be saved.

And you could certainly sense the rising concern when Thursday's hearing opened with Kawamoto passing out yet another proposed amendment to the repeal bill, this one designed to "tweak" the program instead of kill it.

Never mind that the public never saw or had a chance to comment on the amendment. Never mind that even senators on the committees had no opportunity to discuss it before being asked to vote. Never mind that the legislation was so hastily constructed that it contradicted itself in several places. (Addendum to that old saw about things you should never see: legislation being unmade.)

Challenges flew across the conference table right away. Sen. Sam Slom called it an attempt to obfuscate and confuse.

"With all due respect, Mr. Chairman, this is a lousy amendment," added Sen. Colleen Hanabusa.

Perhaps sensing that things weren't going so well, DOT director Brian Minaai seized an opportunity to grab a microphone and drop a bombshell.

For weeks, senators had been asking Minaai to estimate what it would cost taxpayers if the program was repealed, and he had declined to speculate.

Now, just 15 minutes before the repeal vote, Minaai suddenly had an answer for them, one that was clearly intended to give them pause.

"Our best guess estimate is that a repeal would cost us in excess of $1 million," he said.

Some senators were clearly dubious.

One million dollars to pay the company for its investment in some cameras, computers and four vans?

"It would also include their salaries, office, legal and travel costs," Minaai explained.

Even so, $1 million?

"I think all of us who have been through this before know we can't always believe the numbers state agencies give us," Hanabusa said.

Menor's proposed moratorium until July 2003 drew more skepticism.

"Isn't that the same date as the program expires?" someone asked. "How's that different from a repeal?"

Frankly, Menor admitted, he hadn't thought of that. How about Jan. 1, 2003, instead? No good, either, came the response. That means the moratorium would end right before the next legislative session begins, leaving lawmakers right back where they are now.

Finally, when it was clear there was no more room for maneuvering, supporters of the camera program had little choice but to accept defeat, for now.

"I guess we shot all our bullets," Kawamoto said.

The vote to repeal was anticlimactic. All of the senators, even the biggest camera supporters, voted to go along, a move that allows them to participate in conference committee deliberations further down the legislative line, living to fight another day.

So the debate, and the drama, will continue.

Which is a good thing because clearly some of the lawmakers (like those who voted for repeal while admitting they hadn't read the original law, seen the state's contract with the private camera operator or kept asking DOT for more information) still need time to get up to speed (excuse the pun) on a lot of things.

Mike Leidemann's Drive Time column appears every Tuesday. Reach him at 525-5460 or mleidemann@honoluluadvertiser.com.