2010 Legislative Session Roundup: Hawaii

Like the rest of the nation, the Hawaiian legislature made needed reforms in order to balance the state’s $1.2 billion budget deficit.  The Democrat-led legislature used innovative ways to deal with the crisis - such as raising the taxes on petroleum products, a measure that lessens Hawaii’s dependence on foreign oil and reinvests in renewable energy sources, and voting to reroute sitting monies from the Hurricane Relief Fund terminate teacher furloughs and ensure that students remain more days in the classrooms. Notably, the legislature had to override 11 out of 14 vetoes by their Governor.

Taxes and the Budget:  Among those overridden vetoes is HB 2421, which increases the tax on petroleum products, also known as the Barrel Tax, from $0.05 to $1.55 per barrel on petroleum products.  The revenues raised by the tax will provide $22 million per year to help with the deficit and appropriate $11 million to funds relating to renewable energy, food self-sufficiency, and climate change.  The bill promotes economic development, ensures Hawaii’s self-sufficiency in food and energy, and attempts to reverse the impact brought on by climate change.

Health Care:  SB 1178 makes an emergency appropriation of $40 million in general funds and $80 million in federal matching funds to the Department of Human Services for fiscal year 2010 to address the Medicaid budget shortfall.

Education:  State lawmakers approved a bill (SB 2124) that authorizes $67 million from the state's Hurricane Relief Fund to eliminate teacher furloughs next school year.  Governor Lingle has admitted that authorizing teachers’ furloughs was a mistake and has been working with educators to undo her decision.  The bill is ready for the Governor’s approval.

In order to prevent using teacher furloughs  to solve budget crises in the future, HB 2486 will require the phased-in implementation of a certain number of student instructional hours each year at all public schools, except charter schools. It also requires the Department of Education to consider pick-up and drop-off times that optimize its transportation services while minimizing costs to the State.  The bill is awaiting the Governor’s final approval.

Energy Efficiency and the Environment:  A high number of energy efficiency bills were introduced during this legislative session and most did not make it through the session.  Among the few that are ready for the Governor’s signature is SB 2563, requiring the state to have 30% of its fuel needs met by alternative fuels by 2030.

Civil Rights:  In a victory for gay and lesbian equality, HB 444 was approved to permit same-sex and heterosexual civil unions.  The measure extends the same rights, benefits, protections, and responsibilities of spouses in a marriage to partners in a civil union, without changing the definition or requirements for traditional marriage.

Broadband:  Ready for the Governor’s signature is HB 2698 , which creates the state broadband commission in order to promote and maximize availability of broadband services in the State.  The bill provides for public and private entities and competitive prices as well as includes provisions on telemedicine, telework for public and private employees and e-learning.

Miscellaneous:  In response to repeated requests, mostly from out-of-state, to view President Barack Obama’s birth certificate, a law was enacted to ignore duplicate requests if the state has already reviewed the request, found it is the same, and that its response would also be the same (SB 2937).

Failed Election Reforms:  Addressing the problem that Hawaii had the lowest voter turnout rate in the nation in 2008, with only 51.8 per cent of registered voters in islands voting in the Presidential election, the legislature introduced multiple election reform measures, but none were enacted.  Proposals included removing restrictions on ex-felon voting (SB 2171), automatic registration or online voter registration (HB 2406), vote-by-mail (SB 2415), as well as SB 2918, a measure to increase transparency in corporate campaign contributions proposed in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizen's United decision.

Project Vote - Election Legislation Monthly Roundup
Honolulu Advertiser - Hawaii Legislature Focusing on Targeted Tax Hikes, Special Funds
Honolulu Advertiser - Hawaii Legislature Approves $67M to Ease School Furloughs
Hawaii Chapter of the Sierra Club - Capitol Watch