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  • Lawmakers Take Another Step to Restore Preschool Money

    · By Marina Riker

    State funding to help low-income families pay for preschool is a step closer to being restored under a measure passed Wednesday by the House Education Committee.

    About 1,300 families rely on the Preschool Open Doors program to cover preschool costs, but money for the program was inadvertently left out of the governor’s budget for the coming fiscal year.

    Senate Bill 64 was introduced by Sen. Kalani English to restore funding to the Preschool Open Doors program and had already passed the Senate.

    Preschoolers at Seagull Schools

    Alia Wong/Civil Beat

    The program serves low-income families, about half of which are single-parent households. Parents received an average of $544 per month in 2014.

    “Preschool Open Doors … is a lifeline for many low and moderate income parents,” said Christina Cox, who is the president KCAA Preschools of Hawaii.

    A 2013 report by ChildCare Aware of America estimates that parents in Hawaii spend about $8,000 a year on preschool per child. Meanwhile, most of the families who received POD subsidies make about $33,000 a year, according the Good Beginnings Alliance, a nonprofit organization.

    Melanie Padgett, of the Maui County Early Childhood Resource Center, said that many parents would be forced to quit their jobs to watch their children if funding for the POD program isn’t restored this legislative session.

    “To take this funding away would be wrong … it would be devastating,” said Diana Pereira, who testified in support of SB 64.

    As originally written, SB 64 would have allocated $6 million to provide subsidies and another

  • Lawmakers Consider Funding Private Projects with State Revenue Bonds

    · By Nathan Eagle

    Hawaiian Electric Co. has been pushing state lawmakers to approve a bill this session that would authorize the issuance of $800 million in special purpose revenue bonds over the next five years.

    It’s just one of several requests the Legislature is considering despite the dearth of details in how the money would be used. Renewable energy companies, a Catholic university and a former racetrack operator are seeking similar approvals.

    Lawmakers are tasked with determining whether the projects would be in the public interest. It’s the first major hurdle the applicants have to pass before taking their proposals to the Department of Budget and Finance, which gives them a much more thorough vetting before deciding whether to approve them.

    State Rep. Cynthia Thielen wants Hawaiian Electric to provide more details on its request for the Legislature to approve $800 million in special purpose revenue bonds.

    PF Bentley/Civil Beat

    Despite the challenge of making the public-interest determination with scant information, the Legislature routinely approves a handful of projects each year seeking hundreds of millions of dollars in special purpose revenue bonds.

    State Rep. Cynthia Thielen struggled during a hearing in February to pry more information about Hawaiian Electric’s $800 million request from Tayne Sekimura, the company’s senior vice president and chief financial officer. Details about what HECO and HEI’s two neighbor-island utilties, Maui Electric and Hawaiian Electric Light, plan to use the bond money for were hazy at best.

    Thielen, a member of the House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, said it’s a “strange situation”

  • Deal to Preserve Hundreds of Acres at Turtle Bay May Be In Jeopardy

    · By Anita Hofschneider

    The state’s plan to conserve 665 acres at Turtle Bay Resort may be in jeopardy after House lawmakers raised questions about a bill to extend the funding deadline for the $48.5 million agreement, which would require $40 million in state funds.

    The proposal, Senate Bill 284, was on the brink of death after House Tourism Committee Chairman Tom Brower deferred the measure last week because a majority of his committee didn’t support it.

    House Speaker Joseph Souki revived the bill Monday by re-referring it to the Water and Land Committee and Finance Committee after advocates lobbied for the measure.

    But although the bill is back on track, unanswered questions about the deal mean that the fate of the North Shore land is up in the air.

    Gov. Neil Abercrombie signed a bill to create a conservation easement on 665 acres at Turtle Bay Resort.

    Courtesy of the Office of the Governor

    Former Gov. Neil Abercrombie negotiated the conservation easement last year after decades of dispute over whether Turtle Bay Resort should be allowed to expand significantly. While the easement still allows the hotel to expand to a certain extent, it does conserve a significant amount of land in perpetuity.

    But Mike McCartney, Gov. David Ige’s chief of staff and former director of the Hawaii Tourism Authority, said the state still needs to resolve two fundamental questions about the easement: what are the terms and conditions, and are we paying a fair price for it?

    “Those questions needs to be answered before anyone spends

  • Turtle Bay Conservation Easement At Risk After House Defers Financing Bill

    · By Anita Hofschneider

    Last year, the Turtle Bay Resort conservation easement seemed like a done deal.

    Gov. Neil Abercrombie announced the $48.5 million agreement to preserve 665 acres on the North Shore in perpetuity to much fanfare. It was a victory for environmentalists after decades of efforts to curb development in the rural area.

    But now that agreement is at risk, according to Doug Cole, executive director of the North Shore Community Land Trust, who has been part of the negotiations to secure the easement.

    House Tourism Committee Chairman Tom Brower deferred a bill last week that sought to extend the funding for the easement for another year.

    Gov. Neil Abercrombie signs bill to create a conservation easement on 665 acres at Turtle Bay Resort.

    Courtesy of the Office of the Governor

    The funding will expire at the end of June, but negotiations aren’t complete yet. The deal has taken longer than expected to implement due to delays caused by lawsuits, the change in administration, and the time it takes to obtain appraisals and work out the details of the agreement.

    “If the time period that they have to issue these revenue bonds is not extended, then the transaction will probably fail,” Cole said. “The whole project is in jeopardy.”

    Brower said Monday that he decided to defer the bill because it appeared that there wasn’t enough support in the committee for it to pass. He is working with Cole and other advocates to see if House Speaker Joseph Souki can send the bill to another

  • Payday Lenders: Hawaii’s ‘Outrageous’ Rates Prompt Reform Efforts

    · By Anita Hofschneider

    When Alfred Kalaau and his wife Pebbles found a $1,200 per month home to rent in Waianae, they jumped at the chance to leave their small apartment in Kalihi.

    Their landlord had told them to move out because their 3-year-old son’s beloved dog had grown too big, violating the rules of the apartment complex.

    Even though the West Oahu home would mean a long daily commute to their jobs in Hauula and Waikiki, they couldn’t pass up the affordable two-bedroom house with a yard, a rare find on Oahu where the fair market rent is over $1,800.

    But Alfred, a U.S. Navy veteran and special education teaching assistant, and Pebbles, a maintenance worker at Goodwill Industries, didn’t have enough money to pay the deposit and half of the first month’s rent.

    They asked for a loan at three banks and were denied. They called friends and family, but no one could help.

    Alfred Kalaau sits outside the house he and his family are renting in Waianae on March 21. Kalaau and his wife took out four payday loans last fall to afford the deposit and first months rent, and still haven’t been able to pay all of them back.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    Worried that they were going to lose the house, Alfred took out two payday loans from lenders in Waianae and Kalihi. Pebbles, who had already taken out one payday loan to cover car payments, borrowed another $500.

    It was easy, and Alfred felt relieved. All they needed were pay stubs to

  • Who Wants a Government Handout? Tons of Hawaii Nonprofits

    · By Nathan Eagle

    More than 250 Hawaii nonprofits and other groups are asking the Legislature for roughly $185 million in grants-in-aid this session.

    Only a fraction of the applications will be approved and even then the governor may decide to withhold the money.

    The odds didn’t stop many nonprofit leaders from taking advantage of an opportunity Friday to take their case directly to the heads of the Senate and House money committees.

    PF Bentley/Civil Beat

    The informational briefing at the Capitol gave each applicant three minutes to convince lawmakers that their particular project or operating fund request deserves a direct infusion of taxpayer dollars.

    The final list will be hammered out later next month and approved before the Legislature adjourns May 7.

    Last year, lawmakers approved just $10 million in grants, ranging from $25,000 for a cat shelter in Nanakuli to $400,000 for the Young Women’s Christian Association on Kauai.

    And of course there was the $100,000 grant the Legislature approved for the Ewa Historical Society to restore a plantation cemetery.

    Gov. Neil Abercrombie ended up not releasing the money after learning Rep. Rida Cabanilla was on the nonprofit’s board of directors and her son was its vice president.

    This year the requests include $500,000 for the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra, $150,000 for the Hawaii International Film Festival, $1.3 million for the Hawaii Food Bank, $507,000 for the Chamber of Commerce and many, many more.

    Roughly 70 applications came from groups on the neighbor islands and about 185

  • No Prison-for-Pineapples After Land Swap Bill Stalls in House

    · By Nathan Eagle

    Hawaii lawmakers’ latest attempt to swap urban state property for private farm land appears to be dead this legislative session.

    The Senate passed a bill earlier this month that proposed spending $400,000 next fiscal year to investigate the possibility of acquiring lands owned by Dole Food Co. between the North Shore and central Oahu that may be suitable for long-term diversified agriculture production.

    The original plan was for the state to trade the Oahu Community Correctional Center site in Kalihi for nearly 20,000 acres of former pineapple land owned by Dole. That was later simplified to looking into roughly 6,000 acres of Dole land and seeing what state property of equal value might be available for a deal.

    Lawmakers have been looking at trading former pineapple lands owned by Dole for the site of a jail in Kalihi.

    Brett Neilson/Flickr

    The state could in theory boost local food production by renting out the land to farmers and also relocate OCCC, a crumbling low-security jail, to Halawa, the site of the state’s overcrowded medium-security prison. With some 1,400 Hawaii prisoners in mainland facilities as of 2014, expanding Halawa was also put forward as something the deal might accomplish.

    The initial notion was Dole would get the 11-acre OCCC site, which is right along the path of Honolulu’s planned rail transit line. That property could then be turned into a high-density, mixed-use development near the rail station that’s to be built in the area.

    Supporters of the deal

  • House Sends $25.7 Billion State Budget to Senate

    · By Nathan Eagle

    The House voted unanimously Wednesday in favor of its draft of the overall state budget, a $25.7 billion spending plan for the next two years.

    The Senate Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Jill Tokuda, will take up House Bill 500 and make whatever changes it sees fit before sending it to the full Senate for its approval.

    Differences between the House and Senate versions will be ironed out later next month in a joint conference committee.

    A statue of Father Damien in front of the Hawaii Capitol.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    The House Finance Committee, chaired by Sylvia Luke, snipped $226 million off Gov. David Ige’s initial request when it was heard last week. And the administration’s budget request was $300 million less than what departments sought.

    “While the state’s economy seems to be trending upward, we will continue our cautious approach to budgeting, even as we take care of our long-term unfunded liabilities and important CIP projects,” House Speaker Joe Souki said in a release.

    The budget includes $1.47 billion for fiscal 2016, which starts July 1, and $755.3 million for 2017 for capital improvement projects throughout the state. Of the total, the release says $689.9 million go to CIP projects on Oahu, $165.1 million to Maui County, $201.7 million for Big Island and $60.57 million for Kauai.

    “Whether we’re talking about CIP or operating funds, our mindset in the House remains the same: to spend within our means as a matter of consistent practice,” Luke said in the release.

    “In the case of capital expenditures, we also

  • Board Member Financial Disclosures May Be Released Sooner Than Expected

    · By Nathan Eagle

    The public may get to see the financial disclosures statements of certain state board members a year earlier than expected.

    The Hawaii State Ethics Commission agreed Wednesday to send a memo out to board members later this week letting them know that their financial disclosure statements for 2014 will be released if they file a short-form report this year.

    Alternatively, the board members will have the option of filing a new long-form disclosure statement for 2015. The reports are due by June 1.

    Either way, the Ethics Commission’s decision should lead to more timely disclosures for board members affected by a law the Hawaii Legislature passed unanimously last year. Earlier commission decisions had clouded the issue of when the disclosures would be required.

    The Hawaii State Ethics Commission discusses financial disclosures Wednesday morning.

    Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

    Long-form reports are due on even-numbered years. These more-detailed financial disclosure statements identify in broad monetary ranges how much the person earns each year and the source of that income; property and business interests; stocks; memberships on outside boards or trusts; and creditors among other information.

    Short-form reports, allowed during odd-numbered years, allow the board member to simply disclose what has changed from the previous filing or check a box indicating everything remains the same.

    The commission’s decision to make public the 2014 long-form reports for board members who file a short-form report this year probably won’t matter to the vast majority of state employees who are required to publicly disclose their financial interests. This includes the governor,

  • Police Reform: High Hopes Dim as Session Unfolds

    · By The Civil Beat Editorial Board

    The latest installment in the long-running Hawaii police saga that might well be titled “Officers Behaving Badly” debuted earlier this month. This episode featured a two-year Honolulu Police Department veteran slamming a local man on a concrete sidewalk in Palolo and threatening to arrest him.

    The action was captured on video and quickly made its way onto newscasts and websites, where it was served up to a community that’s undoubtedly thinking, “Here we go again.”

    It wasn’t clear from the video or subsequent reporting why the officer employed such a violent takedown of a man who wasn’t even arrested. The victim filed a criminal complaint against the officer, who has now been relieved of his firearm and placed on desk duty.

    Honolulu police officers at a Kaimuki crime scene, 2014.

    PF Bentley/Civil Beat

    Coincidentally, 5,000 miles away on the same day in Washington, D.C., a White House task force was releasing its report on policing and communities. Established not long after both Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in Staten Island, New York, were killed by police last summer, the task force worked quickly to meet a 90-day deadline set by the White House “to identify best practices and offer recommendations on how policing practices can promote effective crime reduction while building public trust.”

    Among its many recommendations, the task force’s 115-page report called for transparent and swift communications with the public after incidents of alleged police misconduct, more body cameras for officers, and an end to profiling

  • Senator Decries ‘Barriers’ in Domestic Violence Cases Involving Cops

    · By Todd Simmons

    The Senate Public Safety Committee on Tuesday passed a bill that would eliminate any requirement for an individual making a domestic violence claim against a police officer to do so through a sworn, written complaint.

    But not without some excitement first.

    The bill drew opposition from the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers in the form of written testimony that called House Bill 456 “contrary to the current SHOPO collective bargaining agreement.”

    Sen. Roz Baker makes a point at a legislative hearing last year.

    PF Bentley/Civil Beat

    That left committee Chair Will Espero and Vice Chair Roz Baker confused. Baker said that conversations with police leadership last fall left her with the impression that the provision for sworn complaints was statutory. Baker and other lawmakers grilled Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha last September following a high profile incident at a Waipahu restaurant in which Honolulu Police Department Sgt. Darren Cachola was caught on video repeatedly striking his girlfriend.

    At that hearing, Baker vowed to make improving oversight for domestic violence matters involving police a point of focus in the 2015 legislative session.

    On Tuesday, HPD Lt. Jonathan Grems clarified that any victim can make a domestic violence complaint, verbally or in writing. The requirement for sworn complaints against police officers is in the union agreement and is mandated for a complainant who wants to aggrieve any issue related to the criminal investigation.”

    Correction: An earlier version of this story did not make clear that required statements pertain only to complaints regarding

  • Palace Intrigue and the Ching Confirmation Vote

    · By Nathan Eagle

    When Hawaii’s 25 state senators decide whether to confirm Gov. David Ige’s nomination of Carleton Ching as head of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, the vote will likely be as much about inside politics as personal convictions.

    Some may vote against him because he is a lobbyist for Castle & Cooke, a major land developer. Some may vote for him because they believe his diverse background and temperament make him the right person for the job.

    But many will probably vote based on what it means for them in terms of maintaining leadership positions, currying favor with the governor, preserving senatorial relationships and getting re-elected.

    Senate President Donna Mercado Kim holds up her hands during a legislative briefing in January. Her power depends on support from the Chess Club and Tokuda factions.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    Like many decisions, this one may come down to factions within the 24-Democrat, one-Republican Senate. Three main groups determine power structures and influence legislative decisions.

    They tend to vote together and generally support their members, even though certain high-stakes issues — like the Ching confirmation or raising taxes to fund Honolulu’s rail project — make it harder to stay united.

    The full Senate is expected to decide as soon as Wednesday whether Ching is the right person to manage Hawaii’s public lands, water resources and coastal areas.

    If the vote was just based on that — considering the strong public opposition — it’d be safe to bet

  • Conflict-of-Interest Bill Faces Uphill Battle in House

    · By Nathan Eagle

    A proposed law that would make it illegal for state employees to take any official action that might directly affect a business that their extended family has a financial interest in will have a tough time clearing the House.

    Senate Bill 451, which cleared the Senate last week, has been referred to four committees in the House as of Monday.

    It’s a triple referral that starts with the Legislative Management Committee, then goes to a joint hearing before Consumer Protection and Judiciary, and finally on to Finance.

    State lawmakers are considering legislation to broaden the conflicts-of-interest section of the Ethics Code.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    By comparison, when the bill was in the Senate it only had to clear the Judiciary and Labor Committee, a single referral, before moving to a vote before the full Senate.

    Civil Beat reported in February how lawmakers can use the referral process to kill a bill by throwing multiple hurdles in its path. Sometimes a measure is rightfully referred to more than one subject-matter committee, sometimes it’s legislative maneuvering done quietly by a handful of lawmakers in leadership positions to derail a measure.

    The state Ethics Commission has tried for years to expand a provision in the Ethics Code to prohibit state employees from taking official action directly affecting a business or undertaking in which an employee knows a parent, sibling or adult child has a substantial financial interest.

    It’s a move supported by good-government groups like Common Cause Hawaii, whose executive director, Carmille Lim, testified that it will “take a step

  • Documentary Showcases History of Hawaii State Capitol

    · By Nathan Eagle

    A short documentary showcases the Hawaii state Capitol building.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    A new 12-minute documentary showcases the history of Hawaii’s Capitol building.

    Interviews feature former governors, architects and others who explain its symbolism (think volcano) and why it’s different than those in other states (natural sky as a dome).

    The building was this year’s Art at the Capitol theme and this year also marks the 50th anniversary of the Capitol’s groundbreaking, according to Will Nhieu, the House assistant director of communications.

    The video was directed, edited, scripted, and produced by Jon Wong and Robbie Omura from Olelo’s Capitol branch at the request of Sen. Brian Taniguchi’s office and the AATC steering committee.

  • Hawaii Lawmakers Cautious Despite Rosier Economic Outlook

    · By Nathan Eagle

    Lower oil prices, a strong construction market and a thriving tourism industry prompted the Hawaii Council on Revenues to slightly upgrade its fiscal forecast for the state Thursday.

    The seven-member group of businessmen, accountants and economists voted to increase its forecast for the current fiscal year by 1 percent, which translates to roughly $55.7 million in additional general fund revenue.

    “The council is, overall, optimistic,” Chair Kurt Kawafuchi said after the meeting.

    Hawaii Council on Revenues Chair Kurt Kawafuchi, pictured here at the council’s January meeting, said Thursday that the council is optimistic about its revised fiscal forecast for the state.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    The forecast was increased from 4.5 percent to 5.5 percent for 2015. The council kept its previous quarterly forecast of 5.5 percent for the next three years but dropped its projections a half percent for the three years thereafter.

    Hawaii lawmakers rely on the multi-year forecast in shaping the state budget for the coming biennium.

    The House Finance Committee, chaired by Rep. Sylvia Luke, passed its version of the overall state budget Wednesday, trimming $226.6 million off Gov. David Ige’s proposed spending plan for the next two years. And the administration’s budget request was $300 million less than what departments sought.

    The House draft proposes spending $6.5 billion in general funds, $12.7 billion in all means of financing for fiscal 2016, which starts July 1. For 2017, the House draft calls for $6.8 billion in general funds, $13.1 billion