Chad Blair: The Most Progressive Legislative Session In A Long Time

Hawaii Chad Blair: The Most Progressive Legislative Session In A Long Time From approving medical aid in dying to banning certain sunscreens and pesticide chemicals, legislators passed bills they only thought about in years past.
Honolulu Civil Beat - May 2, 2018
By: 
Chad Blair

Doing his best Bob Dylan, a state senator literally sang the praises of the Hawaii Legislature on Tuesday.

Strumming a guitar and blowing a harmonica, Mike Gabbard opened the Senate floor session by singing about bills banning pesticides and setting up protective buffer zones around schools, restricting coral-damaging chemicals in sunscreens, expanding medical marijuana use for qualified patients, building legal homeless camps and asking voters to give the Legislature the authority to raise taxes in order to pay teachers more money.

Well, come gather ’round people (wherever you roam) and admit that — at least for the 2018 session — the times they are a-changin’: Lawmakers marked one of their most progressive (meaning innovative, reformist, liberal) sessions in recent memory.

Conference Committee with left Senate President Ron Kouchi and Speaker Scott Saiki watching as the final measure becomes a bill.
During conference committee, Senate President Ron Kouchi (in background at left) and Speaker Scott Saiki (center) watch as the agreement is reached on creating legal homeless encampments.

In addition to the aforementioned legislation, other bills passed this year prohibit sexual-orientation “conversion” therapy, ban the sale of trigger modifications on firearms, preserve parts of Obamacare under Hawaii law, start a pilot project on Kauai for all-mail voting and require the state to investigate unlicensed care homes.

Arguably the most progressive measure of all that passed in the 2018 session (already signed into law by Gov. David Ige) was the medical aid in dying bill, allowing qualified patients the right to obtain life-ending medication. The bill had failed to advance only a year ago.

“We responded to the calls of many,” Sen. Brickwood Galuteria said at the close of the Senate’s floor session Tuesday.

Not every measure passed, of course, but Galuteria said he and his colleagues had “done incredible things.”

“This is exactly what we should be doing,” he said.

Things Have Changed
The 2018 session, which formally concludes Thursday, stands in stark comparison to the events of just a year ago.

At that time, the House of Representatives removed Joe Souki as speaker, the Senate dumped Jill Tokuda as Ways and Means Committee chair and both chambers failed to strike agreement on a plan to pay for Honolulu’s floundering rail system. Instead, lawmakers would have to return in special session in late August to craft a rail bailout.

What made the difference in 2018 — an election year, when conventional wisdom suggests lawmakers facing voters would play it safe?

One factor, say Capitol insiders and observers, was that the aid in dying bill was passed early enough in the session that lawmakers could then turn their attention to other controversial measures.

Chair John Mizuno conference committee 1030a meeting to 2pm today regarding a homeless measure.
Reps. John Mizuno, left, and Tom Brower first talked about safe zones for the homeless 10 years ago. In 2018, their colleagues were finally ready to listen.

Another reason is that agreement was reached on the state budget prior to the give-and-take conference committee period where legislators scrambled to compromise on other bills. Having much of the state’s financial outlays settled made it easier to decide what else — like new programs or employee positions — would live and die.

And a third reason for the passage of so many progressive measures is that the House, the Senate and the Ige administration all placed reducing homelessness and increasing the availability of affordable housing at the top of their priority lists.

“This is really the example of the best of the Legislature.” — Rep. Sylvia Luke

While the intertwined issues have been at the forefront of state and local government for years, the Legislature dedicated a substantial amount of money — more than half a billion dollars — to provide more rental housing units and additional housing-related funding increases and tax exemptions.

It also took a risk on so-called ohana zones, government-sanctioned legal camps for homeless people. The administration has opposed ohana zones as not permanently putting people into housing, but the Legislature is directing the administration to spend more than $30 million to build and provide services at six zones throughout the state.

Sometimes it takes time for an idea to be accepted, said Rep. Tom Brower, who was among a few lawmakers who proposed the idea a decade ago. Speaking on the House floor Tuesday, Brower said homelessness is “perhaps the ultimate challenge facing Hawaii today.”

“For 10 years we had people laughing at us thinking we’re kind of crazy,” said Rep. John Mizuno. “There are no throwaway people in our society.”

Knowing Which Way The Wind Blows
Another reason for the change in policy has to do with changing public opinion. Recent surveys showed that solid majorities wanted medical aid in dying and all-mail voting.

Still, the 2018 session’s variety of progressive legislation is remarkable compared to the sluggishness of past sessions. For example, Hawaii may have been one of the national leaders in passing medical marijuana legislation, but it took far longer to set up dispensaries. Hawaii’s courts were way ahead of the curve on same-sex marriage, too, but it took until 2013 to make it law.

Senator Jill Tokuda Conference Committee mtg HPD pay.
Sen. Jill Tokuda is one of many legislators running for higher office — in her case, lieutenant governor. A fruitful legislative session could play well on the campaign trail.

“This is really the example of the best of the Legislature,” House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said Tuesday. “This is an example of how people came together, both the House and Senate, the various members and various community members, with a lot of hard work, a lot of late nights.”

It’s not that lawmakers agreed on everything.

Gabbard, a Democrat in a Capitol near totally controlled by Democrats, was the lone Senate vote against the sex-conversion therapy bill. But then, he is often conservative on social issues.

Tangled Up In Blue
In the House, Republican Rep. Bob McDermott was among the opponents of SB 270 to ban state-licensed professionals from engaging in conversion therapy for minors. Children who are questioning their sexual identity and unhappy with their same-sex attractions should be able to seek help from a professional, he said.

And conversion therapy would benefit transgender individuals, McDermott said, “who by their very definition have a psychological disorder, gender dysmorphia.”

Rep. Sean Quinlan interrupted McDermott in disagreement. McDermott called a recess, dropped his microphone and spoke briefly with House leadership.

“He was out of fucking order,” he yelled twice, referring to Quinlan.

House lawmakers groaned when McDermott said transgender people were mentally ill.

From across the room, Luke reminded McDermott that his microphone was still on.

The recess was over after a few minutes. Quinlan apologized for interrupting McDermott’s remarks. McDermott apologized too.

“My testosterone therapy must be on overdose today,” he said.

The bill passed on a 45-5 vote.

There was some squabbling in the House between the full five-person Minority Caucus and various members of the 46-person Majority Caucus. Democrats chided their Republican colleagues several times for being “out of order” and veering off topic.

They Gotta Serve Somebody
Still, the passage of several pieces of legislation was unprecedented.

The ban on oxybenzone and octinoxate in sunscreen (except by prescription) is said by lawmakers to be a first in the nation. Banning the use of chlorpyrifos in pesticides, meanwhile, was called “groundbreaking” by Rep. Matt LoPresti. While the data is not conclusive, opponents of chlorpyrifos believe it is deadly.

“This potent effect on our keiki and our aina is not something that can go unchecked,” said LoPresti.

There were areas where the Legislature fell short of progressive goals.

A bill requiring the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to establish paid family leave for all workers by 2023 was changed to require that a study be done on the matter. A related measure, requiring employers to provide a minimum amount of paid sick leave to employees to care for loved ones, died in conference committee.

And a bill prohibiting the sale and use of polystyrene foam containers statewide fell by the wayside, too, in spite of the assurances of legislative leaders that protecting the aina is top of mind. But it still appears that smoking tobacco and using electronic smoking devices will be banned on University of Hawaii premises.

All in all, say many Capitol observers, the 2018 session was one to remember in terms of progressivism. They can savor the accomplishments for now — at least until next month when Gov. Ige identifies which bills he will veto.