Mistake? The Story of the Death of Single-use Bag Bill in Hawaii House02/21/2012
The state representative who made the motion to kill a bill that would make shoppers pay for single-use bags said it was a mistake.
But a top state official told Civil Beat Monday that House Majority Leader Pono Chong had told him in December that he opposed the bill. Guy Kaulukukui, deputy director of the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, said Chong referred to it dismissively as a "feel good bill."
The bill has been paired with funding for watershed protection, the department’s top priority this session, and a cause that has attracted the support of Gov. Neil Abercrombie. Kaulukuki said he told Chong that could turn it into a "do good” bill, but that Chong, who voted against the bag bill last year, appeared unmoved. Chong could not be reached Monday.
The House in a surprise move late Friday voted unanimously to kill the bill. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Denny Coffman, took the blame Monday and said he would not try to resurrect the measure.
The vote was a bizarre turn of events that shocked and angered supporters who only realized afterward what had happened.
“This bill had tremendous public support and virtually unanimous support in each conference,” said Robert Harris, director of the Hawaii Sierra Club, a major backer of the bill. “So I’m shocked that this would occur.”
On Friday, House members filled the legislative chamber to deal with more than a hundred bills that had made it through at least one committee. The votes were mere formalities, or what lawmakers often refer to as “housekeeping.”
The bag bill, House Bill 2260, was to be moved on to the Finance Committee where it would have a final vote before it could be sent over to the Senate.
But instead, it was sent to the bottom of the day’s agenda where Chong motioned to have it re-committed — meaning that it would be sent back to the Committee on Economic Revitalization and Business where it had just passed. It’s an unusual move, usually done to kill legislation.
The bill was not identified, or referred to by its House bill number, during the voice vote.
According to a statement made to the press afterward by Chong, and to Coffman in an interview with Civil Beat, the vote was a mistake. Coffman said he didn’t know what caused the error.
“It happened so fast, there was no time to stop anything,” said Coffman, who said it caught him by surprise.
The vote is a blow to the bill’s supporters, including many members of the Senate, environmental groups and the public, but also the state land and natural resources department.
Three counties already have laws banning single-use plastic bags, but this latest effort would make the ban statewide and extend it to paper bags, too. The proposal would add a fee of 10 cents per bag. If bag use doesn’t decrease by 75 percent by July 2016, the fee would go up to 25 cents. The funds would be used to pay for watershed protection during the first few years. DLNR hopes to receive $11 million annually.
“We knew going in that the battle was really going to be in the House, and now it’s even more so,” Kaulukukui told Civil Beat. There is a Senate version of the bill that will likely be sent over to the House for debate, but that gives the House more power over whether a final bill will emerge.
Kaulukukui said he preferred to believe the vote was just a mistake.
“I’d rather believe that there was no malice and that it was just a procedural error,” he said.
There is talk of trying to bring the House bill back from the dead. Rep. Angus McKelvey, who said the vote against the bill “came out of left field,” and that he would push to have it re-referred directly to the finance committee. McKelvey is chair of the Economic Revitalization and Business Committee.
Harris said that House Bill 998, a similar bill that stalled in the Ledge last year, could also be referred to the House Finance Committee.
“I will likely be sending a letter to the Speaker to pursue that option to correct the mistake,” he said.
Asked if he thought there was any behind the scenes maneuvering to derail the bill, Harris said simply, “I’m going to take them at face value.”
But Coffman, chair of the Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, said he was ready to move on.
“I’ve decided not to try to get things turned back around again,” he said. “The Senate bill is still alive and I’m going to work with my colleagues in the House and do some more selling to educate them on the reasons for this bill.”
He said that if there was anyone to blame it should be him for not catching it.
“In many ways, shame on me,” he said.
DISCUSSION: How do you feel about the single-use bag bill being derailed in the House? Would you like to see such a bill?