SA: Chaos at the Capitol is part of lawmaking in Hawaii (5/8/23)

By Andrew Gomes, Star-Advertiser, 5/8/23

The state Legislature is a busy place most days during its annual session from mid-January to early May, but one day often stands out for rushed, sometimes hushed activity.

April 28 was the deadline this year for select House and Senate members to agree on compromise versions of fiscal bills where previous House and Senate committee drafts differed.

Agreements were reached that day on about 130 bills, or nearly half of all bills set up for final votes by all 51 House and 25 Senate members this year.

To accomplish this, one conference room at the state Capitol became a nexus of shuffling, scrambling, confusion and a special facilitator who helped funnel as many bills through the process as time permitted.

Many bills fell by the wayside amid the rush, or “cattle call” as some observers called it, including legislation where agreement was lacking but also some bills where no conference committee quorum could be arranged or a key lawmaker was elsewhere when their vote was needed.

Colin Moore, a public-policy lecturer at the University of Hawaii, said the scene appeared more hectic than in recent years.

”It was unusually confusing this session,” he said. “There’s always a lot of drama that goes on in conference, but legislators didn’t seem to have an idea how this all would shape up in the end and there was some disappointment about some of the bills that ended up not making it.”

House Speaker Scott Saiki said there was an exceptionally high number of bills still needing agreement from House-Senate conference committees by the usual 6 p.m. deadline on April 28, so he and Senate President Ron Kouchi decided that day to make handling such volume more manageable by shepherding all meetings into one room at the Capitol, Room 309, for the last 90 minutes starting at 4:30 p.m.

This helped to a large degree, though much disorganization persisted.

At 4:15 p.m. in Room 016 in the basement of the Capitol, Sen. Glenn Wakai was the only one of three Senate conference committee members available to discuss a bill aimed at establishing an illegal-fireworks task force.

“We are having some troubles getting quorum, and we hope we get that quorum upstairs,” he said, urging his House counterparts in the room with him to reconvene later in Room 309 for the mash-up of bill agreement processing.

The fireworks task force measure, Senate Bill 821, ended up passing.

A similar scene with a different result unfolded at 5 p.m. in Room 229 with Rep. Sean Quinlan being the only one of six committee members present to discuss a high-profile and much-debated bill to charge Hawaii visitors a $50 environmental impact fee.

Quinlan announced to the nearly empty room that the meeting on the visitor fee bill, SB 304, would be moved to Room 309. But amid the hectic push to produce so many bill agreements, the visitor fee bill was not taken up.

To help manage the cavalcade of bills up for agreement, House Majority Leader Nadine Nakamura worked to spur along voting by different conference committees in an order sketched out on a large panel of paper.

“We have to keep moving quickly,” she said after urging one lawmaker to put off signing a bill’s final draft so more agreement votes could be taken.

“We’re going to go to the next item. … Do you have some agreed-upon bills?” Nakamura called out, seeking action on bills related to higher education and technology.

In response, Rep. Amy Perusso called to order a committee on the subject as Rep. Della Au Belatti attempted to continue with health-related bills while yet another lawmaker asked, “What are we doing?”

Nakamura held firm with the order of operations saying, “Della, we’re already on to the next committee.” Later, Belatti was able to obtain votes on the bumped health bills before the 6 p.m. deadline.

At one point in Room 309 after the rushed processing of bill agreement voting had begun, it was noted that Sen. John Mizuno wasn’t available to vote because he was “taking care of some business” in another meeting room.

Mizuno was in Room 329 with Sen. Maile Shimabu­kuro announcing that there was no quorum to vote on at least seven bills scheduled for meetings by conference committees they led.

“We do not have conferees here,” Mizuno said. “Meeting in Room 309 right now.”

Of the seven bills Mizuno and Shimabukuro listed, four got the votes they needed later in Room 309, including one to establish a human trafficking prevention program and one to establish a three-year pilot program to help homeless people from other states return to family and relatives in their home state.

In Room 309, some lawmakers voted from the doorway or other standing positions around conference tables where colleagues rotated throughout the afternoon as different conference committees convened and reconvened.

Occasionally, committee chairs called out for members to appear in order to hold votes.

“We are ready to vote as soon as I see Sen. (Chris) Lee,” declared Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole on one measure. After a pause and gazes shot around the room, Lee appeared and voting proceeded.

In another instance, one lawmaker’s absence led to the demise of a bill appropriating $5.5 million in the next fiscal year starting July 1 toward a state-led effort to develop a planned hydrogen fuel hub that is in contention to receive $500 million from the federal government matched by $500 million from private industry.

About 20 minutes before the 6 p.m. deadline in Room 309, Rep. Nicole Lowen noted that a designee of the House Finance Committee chaired by Rep. Kyle Yama­shita wasn’t available to vote on the hydrogen hub bill, SB 1520.

“I guess at this point, what’s the recommendation?” asked Sen. Lynn DeCoite. In response, Lowen said, “We can defer since we don’t have Rep. Yamashita here to vote on it.”

SB 1520 never got its needed vote. Yet the hydrogen hub appropriation, unbeknownst to Lowen and DeCoite, had been approved about 90 minutes earlier in the same room by Yama­shita and five other lawmakers who agreed to insert language from SB 1520 including the $5.5 million appropriation plus other material including an additional $10 million for fiscal year 2025 and $700,000 for a state Department of Taxation computer system upgrade into House Bill 28, a blank bill “relating to state programs.”

The conference committee meeting for HB 28 took less than a minute. “We have an agreement to move forward on this,” Yamashita announced. Upon tallying the vote to approve the conference draft, he said, “OK, we have a measure. We’re adjourned.”

There were so many last-day agreements producing conference draft bills that Saiki and Kouchi extended a filing deadline for them and related committee reports from 11:30 p.m. that night, a Friday, to Monday, May 1, at noon. Then on May 1, Saiki and Kouchi further extended the filing deadline to 6 p.m.

Moore said this session’s particularly confusing and sometimes chaotic conference committee decisions to kill or pass legislation provide further evidence that the Legislature should meet full time throughout the year to get the people’s work done.

“It may really be time to think seriously about a full-time Legislature because the time limits are used strategically to kill bills or kick the can down the road … because there’s always the excuse that we ran out of time.”

Local political analyst Neal Milner also said the part-time session inhibits good work.

“There are two reasons bills die, one of which is influential committee members just let them die,” he said. “The other is that the whole legislative session is so intense that you’re just going to run out of time. This happens all the time. With enormous amounts of bills, I don’t like the process of squeezing stuff in between January and May.”


Staff writer Dan Nakaso contributed to this report.


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