Rob Parsons

Call to Action

State lawmakers are deciding Hawaii's future. Don't let them do it alone

by Rob Parsons

March 12, 2009

This time of year, everything at the state Capitol is on the fast track. For some incomprehensible reason, the Hawaii state legislature is expected to accomplish an entire year's work in a mere 15 weeks. The consequence of the condensed time frame for legislative review is a lawmaking process that is more accessible to paid lobbyists, and less user-friendly to the general public.

Still, citizen input is essential to good government. And with a little coaching, you too will be empowered to take action on vital bills currently under review.

A good place to start is at the Hawaii Legislative Reference Bureau (LRB), which maintains an office at the state Capitol. The nonpartisan LRB aims to provide public access to the legislative branch of state government. They undertake research, catalog extensive library resources and are adept at answering community inquiries, from the mundane to the complex.

The LRB publishes a newsletter blog called "First Reading" and offers other online links and services at www.hawaii.gov/lrb

The State Directory of Officials can also be found on the LRB Web site; it's a good idea to bookmark the link. You are then prepared to contact your own elected representatives and other key officials such as committee chairs. It's also wise to establish a cordial relationship with staff members and aides in legislative offices, as they are valuable go-betweens and are likely more accessible than the busy legislators.

Proceedings at the State House and Senate are exempt from the Hawaii Sunshine Law provisions that require a week's written notice for agendas of county councils, planning commissions and other decision-making bodies. Thus, it is essential to know where to find updates on critical bills and resolutions.

More than 3,500 total bills were introduced to the House and Senate this year. Even after whittling that number down before this week's first "crossover" (the House sends surviving bills to the Senate for review, and vice versa), it is a daunting task to keep tabs on all important legislation. Several watchdog groups and individuals send out periodic e-mail alerts, encouraging citizens to submit written testimony or contact lawmakers.

Signing up for updates with Hawaii Sierra Club, Blue Planet Foundation, Life of the Land, KAHEA and others will help you keep abreast of updates before critical hearings are held. Sometimes it's necessary to bombard committee chairs with calls in order to assure that they will even schedule a hearing for a bill, as opposed to allowing it die without a vote.

Topics such as the proposed same-sex civil unions proposal (House Bill 444) have garnered big media attention, while others such as Senate Bill 1318, which would repeal the Hawaii Revised Statutes (HRS) section that safeguards coastal lands from impacts through Special Management Area (SMA) permit review, have gone virtually unnoticed.

The following are among the many notable bills introduced in the 2009 session, and include issues both on and off the radar screen. Once you know the bill number for specific legislation, you can easily view the full text and track its progress by clicking a link that is updated daily: www.capitol.hawaii.gov/site1/docs/docs.asp

Life of the Land Director Henry Curtis is advocating strong support of HB1271, which establishes the Hawaii Energy and Food Security Task Force to address Hawaii's energy and food security needs by imposing a tax on barrels of imported oil. He notes this is the first time a bill has linked both food and energy, and believes that Hawaii has a better chance to achieve self-sufficiency by working on them together, not separately.

Blue Planet Foundation, launched in April 2008 with a summit that included speakers Hunter Lovins, Ramsey Taum and Robert Kennedy Jr., is a newcomer to lobbying at the state Capitol. But they have employed the services of one of Hawaii's foremost environmentalists, Jeff Mikulina, who chaired the Hawaii Sierra Club over the past 10 years.

Blue Planet, whose stated mission is "to change our world's energy culture," lists more than a dozen current bills as "priority measures." Among them are bills to prohibit building new or expanding existing fossil fuel-fired power plants (HB1843, SB1671); establish energy efficiency targets (SB1173); adopt California's standards for fuel-efficient cars (SB1174); establish a clean energy investment fund (HB1271); provide tax incentives and rebate credits for investments in electric cars (SB551, SB1185, SB1202); and disallow homeowner covenants that prohibit using clotheslines to dry laundry (HB1273, SB1338).

A full list of priority energy bills can be found on Blue Planet's Web site: www.blueplanetsummit.org

Sierra Club Hawaii's new director Robert Harris has flagged two bills (SB1008, HB834) that would drastically cut water quality standards, thus threatening our beaches and streams through greater allowable levels of toxins and bacteria.

Harris also alerted Sierra Club members to "keep corporate fat cats out of elections" by working to stop House Bill539. That measure seeks to lift the $1,000 limit on corporate contributions to political campaigns, an idea Harris deems "a huge step in the wrong direction."

The Sierra Club also urged support to protect Natural Area Reserve System (NARS) funding by opposing HB1741. By suspending all contributions to NARS through real estate conveyance taxes, this measure is being sold as belt-tightening in light of a sagging economy. But it would rob healthy watersheds, forested areas and marine eco-systems such as 'Ahihi-Kina'u of needed safeguards.

KAHEA, the Environmental Alliance, has set up a "virtual testimony" Web site link to provide input on three critical bills. The first is a SB502, one of four proposed bills that would allow the University of Hawaii to be "vested with autonomous authority"to control the public trust astronomy research sites atop Mauna Kea. In addition to threatening the Conservation District designation and impacting sacred Hawaiian sites, KAHEA notes, "this is one of the largest grabs for public trust ceded lands ever and could be the future of Haleakala on Maui, as well, if it is not stopped now."

The KAHEA.org Web site also asks for support for two measures-HB 1663 and SB 709-that would establish a full ban on genetically modified taro. Meanwhile, another GMO bill that would preempt such action has already cleared the House Agricultural Committee.

HB 1226 would add a new chapter of Hawaii law to provide that "no state administrative regulatory action shall ban or restrict a person from genetically modifying within the State any plant organism if the genetic modification is performed in accordance with a valid permit from the relevant federal agency." The measure further seeks to mandate that no county action could prevent or regulate genetic modification of plant organisms, either.

Hawaii Superferry, top spender last year among lobbyists, appears to still hold sway at the state Capitol. HB1171, recently passed with amendments, would extend the dates provided in the special session legislation of Act 2, allowing the fast-ferry to operate while preparing their own environmental review.

The U.S. Humane Society is supporting SB1194, making it illegal to possess the razor-sharp knives and slashers that are strapped on rooster legs for cockfighting. Hawaii, they point out, has one of the country's weakest cockfighting laws because they do not ban such implements or otherwise prohibit associated activities.

This year, sending testimony on any House or Senate bill is even easier, thanks to a new link: www.capitol.hawaii.gov/emailtestimony

One can also check a box marked "get latest hearing" to be notified when a particular bill has a scheduled committee hearing. Other buttons allow the online testifier to denote "support," "oppose" or "comments only," and to type in or upload detailed testimony.

Bills surviving the first crossover will receive further scrutiny and possible amendments before going to the second crossover on April 16. The next six weeks are thus vital to the success or failure of specific legislative measures. Armed with the above information, hopefully the community at large can make its voice heard at this year's legislative session.

Some important Web sites...