Hawaii fireworks bill left sputtering in political maneuver
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
Hours after a breakthrough agreement yesterday to give counties the option to ban fireworks, lawmakers learned that the deal could fall through because of an obscure rule governing the negotiations.
A majority of House and Senate negotiators agreed to a bill that would give counties the option to ban fireworks and create a task force to study illegal fireworks. But conference committee rules require that a majority of chairmen in the conference attest to the agreement, and two of the three House chairmen involved in the talks said last night that they would not sign off.
State Rep. Joseph Souki, D-8th (Wailuku, Waihe'e, Waiehu), and state Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu, D-41st (Wai- pahu, Village Park, Waikele), are refusing to sign the agreement because they believe the state, not the counties, should regulate fireworks.
State House Speaker Calvin Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Pālolo Valley, Wilhelmina Rise), has the authority to discharge Souki and Karamatsu from the conference committee or sign the agreement in their place.
"That is our normal practice whenever a chair is refusing or absent from signing," said state House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, D-33rd ('Aiea, Hālawa Valley, 'Aiea Heights).
"We would hope that any chair would not shirk their duties and responsibilities and would sign a report, because it's actually just attesting as to what the committee did. It's not an attestation of their own position."
Although Say could intervene, it was not immediately clear last night how House leaders would resolve the situation.
In the tactical maneuvering and horse-trading that surrounds conference committees at the end of session, key lawmakers, looking for leverage on other bills or as a sign of protest, have occasionally been known to simply not show up to negotiations, leave the state Capitol at critical moments, or refuse to sign off on deals.
Yesterday, supporters of the bill to give counties the option to ban fireworks thought they had achieved an agreement that would be sent to the full House and Senate for final approval.
The agreement was a compromise for lawmakers who wanted a statewide ban on fireworks after complaints from residents about excessive fireworks displays.
Consumer fireworks are allowed on New Year's Eve, Chinese New Year's Day and the Fourth of July under a state law passed in 1994 that brought uniformity to conflicting county regulations. Aerials and other dangerous explosives are illegal except for professional displays by permitted fireworks technicians.
Under the deal, counties would be able to pass fireworks regulations that are stronger than state law.
Souki said the state should not delegate the regulation of fireworks to the counties. "If we need to improve the fireworks law — or resolve the fireworks (problem) — we do it statewide, not give it to somebody else and we shirk our responsibility," he said.
State Sen. Will Espero, D-20th ('Ewa Beach, Waipahu), one of the Senate negotiators, said that if Souki and Karamatsu were to prevail it would be a "travesty of our legislative process."
"To kill it on what appears to be a ridiculous technicality or reading of the rule is shameful," Espero said. "And it mocks our legislative conference system."
State Rep. Marilyn Lee, D-38th (Mililani, Mililani Mauka), one of the House negotiators, said lawmakers who want to control fireworks thought they were not going to achieve anything this session. But now they have a potential agreement on the county option and a separate bill that allows courts to close and bring forfeiture proceedings against properties involved in the illegal fireworks trade.
"I think it would have been great to pass a total ban, but, you know, baby steps towards a final goal of eliminating what is a health and a safety problem that we've been really coping with all these years and not getting any solutions," Lee said.