State legislators close out 'a great year'
The state House and Senate closed what many described as a richly productive session yesterday, confident that voters would agree they used a $600 million budget surplus to achieve a balance between infrastructure improvements and tax relief.
The 60-day session began in January with what state House Speaker Calvin Say called the "$600 million question" of how to spend a surplus that had grown with the state's economy. State lawmakers gave more than half of the surplus to public education — mostly to ease a school repair and maintenance backlog — but also made investments in heath and human services, affordable housing, alternative energy, agriculture and disaster preparedness.
Only a slice, about 8 percent, was used for tax relief, but lawmakers said it was a move in the right direction after years of fiscal restraint that has usually left tax relief on the cutting room floor.
"I said we were capable of resolving even the most persistent of problems if we set aside politics and simply strive to do the right thing for the right reasons," state Senate President Robert Bunda, D-22nd (North Shore, Wahiawa), told his colleagues in his closing speech.
Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Palolo, Wilhelmina Rise), told reporters after the House broke for the year with renditions of "Amazing Grace" and "Hawai'i Aloha" that "it's been a great year for us."
"For the general public at large, we've addressed the sectors of our economy and community from healthcare to human services to the energy crisis that we have ... (and) we've addressed the gas cap."
The session had the potential to become a philosophical clash between Democratic leaders and Republican Gov. Linda Lingle, who originally wanted nearly $300 million of the surplus used for tax relief and then more recently asked for $120 million. But a conflict never really materialized as Lingle instead chose to work collaboratively on issues such as affordable housing and energy, where there was more common ground.
The Lingle administration asked Democrats this week to enlarge the $50 million in tax relief they agreed to last Friday, but the governor did not otherwise let the issue overwhelm her broader comments that this was the best session since she took office nearly four years ago. Other Republicans were much more critical about the lack of more tax relief because they believe the surplus came from overtaxation.
"The people should be here with pitchforks and torches. They should be complaining," said state Sen. Sam Slom, R-8th (Kahala, Hawai'i Kai).
State Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, R-25th (Kailua, Waimanalo, Hawai'i Kai), said tax relief was not "even half a loaf."
Closing days of the session can often be ceremonial, but lawmakers left several important votes to the last minute.
The House voted yesterday to suspend the wholesale price cap on gasoline but give Lingle the authority to reinstate it at her discretion under a new formula. The new formula, which had been opposed by the House, adds Singapore to the three Mainland markets used to calculate the price cap and could lower the price ceiling.
The Senate had passed the gas cap suspension on Tuesday after scuttling a House amendment to kill the new formula. The House had to pass the bill yesterday or the gas cap would have remained in effect, but several House members still complained that the formula is flawed. "It only attempts to legitimize an artificial rate that gives Hawai'i consumers unrealistic expectations of Hawai'i's gasoline prices," said state Rep. Hermina Morita, D-14th (Kapa'a, Hanalei).
The House also unexpectedly killed a bill yesterday that could have helped the state collect taxes on Internet sales. In reaction, the Senate tabled a bill, important to Say, that would have provided $100 million over four years to encourage innovative new technology. The two bills had been linked last Friday by House and Senate negotiators in end-of-session bargaining.
But despite these differences, lawmakers described the session as rewarding and surprisingly friendly in an election year. Majority Democrats and Lingle are both favored to keep power after the November elections, so neither side took political risks that might jeopardize their advantages.
The surplus gave lawmakers some room to spread wealth among different interest groups, but they also made several significant public-policy decisions.
Lawmakers increased the cigarette tax to pay for cancer research and other public health programs and prohibited smoking in bars, airports and other public places to reduce exposure to secondhand smoke.
After years of pleading by law enforcement, lawmakers approved an expanded electronic surveillance law that eliminates an adversarial hearing before wiretaps are approved and will likely allow evidence from federal wiretap investigations to be used in state trials. Lawmakers also passed a three-strikes penalty for violent criminals that will lead to mandatory prison sentences of 30 years to life.
Some people who were anticipating what the Legislature might do with the surplus were somewhat let down.
Deborah Jackson, owner and founder of Eldercare Hawai'i, said the elderly still need more attention from the state. "I'm looking forward to working with the Kupuna Caucus that just was formed this year in finding ways to address the welfare of the growing senior population in a more comprehensive way."
Jackson would have liked to have seen a prepaid funeral bill passed this year but it stalled. "It's overdue," she said.
Darlene Hein, vice chairwoman of Partners in Care, a coalition of homeless service providers, said the Legislature did some good work in the area of affordable housing. "They did fairly well when you look at that piece," she said, pointing particularly to an increase in the Rental Housing Trust Fund, which will help develop more affordable rentals.
However, when it comes to the homeless, Hein was disappointed that lawmakers did not rescind a law that criminalizes sleeping in parks. In addition, while lawmakers dedicated almost $50 million to affordable housing and homeless initiatives, she said $15 million of the $20 million in funding for homeless services went to specific projects instead of being used to solicit new proposals from service providers.
"I think they fell short in how they allocated the $20 million," Hein said.
Some lawmakers also stopped short of describing the session in too glowing of terms. Many of the Democrats' priorities — public education, affordable housing, alternative energy — will require a commitment by the Legislature over several years. Progress may be hard to quantify or explain in the compressed realm of an election cycle.
"I guess people should be pleased with the results," said state Sen. Russell Kokubun, D-2nd (S. Hilo, Puna, Ka'u). "But they should still want us to do more on these issues."