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  • Not All Warm and Fuzzy: Care Home Bill Would Have Forced Out a Patient

    · By Nathan Eagle

    State lawmakers faced a dilemma in the waning days of the legislative session as they considered a bill promoted as a way of reuniting a couple married 67 years.

    On its surface, the story was solid. Noboru Kawamoto, a 94-year-old decorated World War II veteran, and his wife Elaine have been separated for several months, ever since he moved into a type of care home that only allows one private-pay client.

    He needed nursing-facility care but wanted a residential instead of institutional setting. He found that in a community care foster family home in Kaneohe operated by Jonathan Hanks.

    House Vice Speaker John Mizuno, on the House floor April 27, continues to look at ways to get around state regulations so a married couple can live in the same community care foster family home.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    But under current law, only three clients are allowed in a CCFFH. And two of the three must be on Medicaid — the low-income demographic that these state-regulated homes were created to serve.

    House Bill 600 would have allowed the Department of Health to make an exception for private-pay couples who are married or in a civil union to live in a CCFFH.

    But another consideration was at play. The care home Noboru lives in already has three clients, so someone would have to go. And that someone would be on Medicaid if the Kawamotos were both to live there.

    “I was so focused on getting Elaine and Noboru back together, I didn’t

  • Final Pieces Fall Into Place for State Senate Reorganization

    · By Nathan Eagle

    New Hawaii state Senate President Ron Kouchi announced the final lineup of committee chairmanships and leadership positions Friday morning, mostly settling unresolved posts from the rocky transition to power.

    He found a home for all but a few members of the Chess Club faction of the Senate who lost out when Donna Mercado Kim was deposed two days before the legislative session ended May 7.

    The initial lineup, announced May 6, did not give a committee chairmanship or leadership position to Sen. Les Ihara, majority policy leader during Kim’s three-year reign as president; Sen. Russell Ruderman, who headed the Agriculture Committee; freshman Sen. Gil Riviere, or Kim.

    The Hawaii State Capitol’s second floor, home to most Senate offices.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    The new leadership had assigned Sen. Laura Thielen, who had chaired Water and Land, to head a newly merged Health and the Environment Committee, and Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland to lead the Human Services Committee, but they were pending confirmation.

    Chun Oakland later accepted her assignment, but Thielen rejected hers after making an effort with others on the outs to reach a deal with leadership to also give Ruderman and Kim chairmanships.

    At one point, Thielen said there was a deal to give hers the Environment and Ocean Resources Committee, Ruderman the Health Committee and Kim the Government Operations Committee, but it fell apart.

    Kouchi has said he didn’t want a polarizing figure like Ruderman, a self-described environmentalist, or for that matter Sen. Clarence Nishihara, a friend of the biotech industry, to head Agriculture. Instead, he found a more neutral and approachable

  • Why Is House Speaker Joe Souki Going After Ethics Director Les Kondo?

    · By Nathan Eagle

    Updated 2:15 p.m., 5/22/2015

    House Speaker Joe Souki is calling on the Hawaii State Ethics Commission to reject many of the new policies it has put in place since Les Kondo became its executive director in 2011.

    “I believe the Commission should examine its own past opinions from the 1970s through 2010 and disavow any directives subsequent to that time that alter past accepted practices,” Souki wrote in a four-page letter to the commission’s chair, Ed Broglio.

    The five-member commission has been reviewing Kondo’s performance over the past four months, his first formal evaluation in three years, and plans to take up the issue at its next meeting Wednesday.

    Ethics Executive Director Les Kondo, seen here at a state Ethics Commission meeting in July 2014, is under fire for his view of what the Ethics Code allows or prohibits.

    PF Bentley/Civil Beat

    There have been rumblings that Kondo may be out of a job as soon as next week but Broglio said Thursday that he doesn’t think that will be the case.

    Kondo has liberally construed the Ethics Code over the past four years, issuing a series of directives and recommendations for lawmakers and state employees to follow.

    The guidance has irked many, evidently to the point that it prompted Souki to pen his April 27 letter to Broglio about the “dismaying pattern” he’s seen of the commission staff “trying to rewrite the Ethics Code” to conform to their own notions of ethical

  • Emergency Money Made Easy, If You’re a Democratic Governor

    · By Nathan Eagle

    Gov. David Ige was elected Nov. 4, took office Dec. 1 and hit the Legislature up for $670,400 a month later.

    His office needed the emergency money to cover payroll shortfalls, travel expenses and other transitional needs of the new administration.

    It’s a common request for incoming governors to make, but one that often receives little scrutiny, particularly for Democrats in deep blue Hawaii.

    Gov. David Ige attends a legislative meeting April 24 with his deputy chief of staff, Laurel Johnston.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    State lawmakers rushed to pass House Bill 930, unanimously agreeing to provide every cent Ige requested. He signed the legislation into law in late February as Act 2. 

    Few details of how the $670,400 was to be spent or how that amount was arrived at were provided prior to the vote — just a handful of categories and assurances that it was necessary.

    The governor’s office provided a breakdown of the appropriation this week in response to a Civil Beat request.

    Laurel Johnston, Ige’s deputy chief of staff, said the bulk of it, $359,000, went toward paying out unused vacation time to staff in the previous administration.

    The remainder included $12,000 in protocol funds to buy gifts and dinners for visiting dignitaries; over $100,000 in dues to the Western Governors Association and National Governors Association; and $52,000 to buy a 2005 Ford Expedition to chauffeur the governor and his security detail around in. The balance went for new Microsoft tablets for staff,

  • Honolulu Prosecutor to Hawaii Governor: Veto the Sex Trafficking Bill

    · By Nick Grube

    Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro wants Hawaii Gov. David Ige to veto a sex trafficking bill because he’s concerned the measure could make it more difficult to lock up pimps, johns and madams.

    Senate Bill 265 received unanimous support in the Legislature, and was lauded by advocates as a paradigm shift for a state that’s known for lenient enforcement of prostitution and sex trafficking. The bill’s main goal was to treat those forced into prostitution as victims instead of criminals, in part by providing them with witness protection services and the ability to collect damages.

    But Kaneshiro told Civil Beat that SB265 adds several new provisions to the state’s “promoting prostitution” statute that will effectively limit his ability to gain convictions in sex trafficking cases.

    Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney Keith Kaneshiro takes pride in his efforts to combat sex trafficking.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    “This bill that was passed was passed under the claim that Hawaii does not have a sex trafficking law,” Kaneshiro said. “What they’ve done with this bill is create more of a problem for us.”

    In a three-page letter to Ige, Kaneshiro says SB265 will “severely restrict and deter” his ability to prosecute sex trafficking cases because he will need to collect more evidence of other illegal acts, such as extortion, kidnapping, fraud or deception.

    He also said that there are problems in the bill’s language that would made it difficult to prosecute a pimp for exploiting a minor if the pimp didn’t know the victim was under 18

  • Ruderman Honored as Hawaii’s Small Business Person of the Year

    · By Nathan Eagle

    State Sen. Russell Ruderman has been named the Hawaii Small Business Person of the Year.

    He returned this week from Washington, D.C., where he was honored by the U.S. Small Business Association, according to a Senate news release Friday.

    “I’m truly humbled by this honor,” Ruderman said in the release. “I feel lucky to be able to combine my passion to support local people and local products with my love for business and entrepreneurship.”

    Sen. Russell Ruderman listens during a Ways and Means meeting March 3.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    Ruderman is president and founder of Island Naturals, a group of natural and organic food stores on the Big Island. The company now employs 150 people at locations in Kona, Hilo and Pahoa.

    Those who nominated Ruderman for the Business Person of the Year award, described him as someone “willing to listen to people with different worldviews,” and “very humble and unassuming,” the release says.

    “When we had our orientation for new employees, he said he always wanted to work at a place where you can have fun,” says Sarah Naleimaile, who works in the Hilo store. “And that’s the kind of place it is. I’m actually excited to come to work every day.”

  • With Kouchi as the New Dealer, Senate Still Shuffling Its Cards

    · By Nathan Eagle

    Updated 10:45 a.m., 5/18/2015

    After 11 terms on the Kauai County Council and five years in the Legislature, Ron Kouchi is hardly new to politics.

    And yet his ascension last week to the state Senate presidency caught many off guard.

    The rare in-session coup to oust Donna Mercado Kim was surprising in and of itself, but more so for elevating to power a relatively unknown politician from a quiet neighbor island. Even some of Kouchi’s colleagues don’t know how to pronounce his name. (It’s “KOH-chee.”)

    Senate President Ron Kouchi, top, talks with Vice President Will Espero, left, Majority Leader Kalani English, right, and Judiciary and Labor Chair Gil Keith-Agaran on May 7.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    That’s partly due to his style. Kouchi operates behind the scenes, an expert dealmaker focused more on getting things done than grabbing headlines, according to lawmakers and others who have worked closely with him.

    “He’s a very competent leader as far as looking at the contributions of all of the individuals,” said Jay Furfaro, who served on the Kauai County Council with Kouchi until he was appointed to the Senate in 2010 by then-Gov. Linda Lingle.

    “Some thought he was a little too tough but he had to hold people’s feet to the fire and he never misrepresented himself,” said Furfaro, now the administrator of the county boards and commissions.

    Tim Bynum, who served on the Kauai County Council with Kouchi for two years, said he is “very thoughtful

  • Sign the Tobacco and E-Cigarette Ban

    · By The Civil Beat Editorial Board

    Legislation now awaiting the governor’s signature advances the front in the war on tobacco in new and historic ways. Senate Bill 1030 would ban the purchase, possession and public use of all tobacco products and e-cigarettes by those under 21, making Hawaii the first state to outlaw tobacco for the 18- to 20-year-old set.

    Such products are already outlawed for minors. This bill wades into more difficult waters, so far only attempted by New York City and a handful of other metro areas, in making tobacco products illegal for young adults, but maintaining their legality for those 21 and older. (Alabama, Alaska, New Jersey and Utah, it should be noted, restrict tobacco sales to those under 19.)

    There is precedent for such regulation. Hawaii’s legal drinking age has been fixed at 21 for nearly three decades. Though 18-year-olds can join the military, vote, marry and otherwise be treated as adults in the eyes of the law in a range of other circumstances, society nationwide has long been perfectly comfortable with restricting their access to alcohol, under the guise that younger adults are more prone to alcohol abuse and attendant problems than those 21 and older.

    Hawaii is poised to ban purchase and public use of tobacco products and e-cigarettes for those under 21.

    Challiyil EswarChalakudy via Wikimedia Commons

    There is compelling reasoning and evidence that acting similarly on tobacco products and e-cigarettes would have tremendously positive public health benefits. As the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids points out,

  • Ige Was a Hands-On Guy With the Legislature — For Better or Worse

    · By Nathan Eagle and Anita Hofschneider

    Hawaii Gov. David Ige mostly lived up to his campaign promise to work collaboratively with the Legislature during the 2015 session, but his young administration’s communication with lawmakers frustrated some of the key players.

    Senate and House leaders said they did not mind their former colleague’s hands-on approach. Ige’s involvement behind the scenes fostered agreements on the overall state budget and bills to privatize Maui hospitals and reconfigure the Turtle Bay conservation deal.

    But he didn’t always have the golden touch, as evidenced by his cheerleading during a two-day confirmation hearing for his ill-fated nominee to head the Department of Land and Natural Resources.

    Gov David Ige during an April 30 press conference.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    Sylvia Luke, who leads the House Finance Committee, said she and her Senate counterpart, Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda, met weekly with Ige, his chief of staff, Mike McCartney, and Budget Director Wes Machida.

    “We had a standing meeting from the beginning of session to discuss some of the appropriation measures and some of the challenges,” Luke said. “That was very helpful.”

    She said having the House, Senate and administration working together helped produce “workable and decent bills” this session, which began in January and wrapped up Thursday.

    “Working with the administration was a learning curve for the administration as well as for us,” Senate Majority Leader Kalani English said. “We had to understand their style, their people — as far as who to contact for different issues — and what were their goals and objectives.”

    Legislative

  • Legislature Needs More Time To Deal With Increasingly Packed Agendas

    · By The Civil Beat Editorial Board

    If Hawaii’s 2015 legislative session were a movie, it would be one with plenty of subplots, lots of suspense and a surprise twist ending that no one saw coming.

    Lawmakers mowed through nearly 2,000 bills, bringing about 170 to the finish line, including major measures to extend a tax surcharge funding the Honolulu rail project, establish medical marijuana grow centers and dispensaries and protect 653 pristine acres on the North Shore from development, not to mention a $26 billion biennial budget.

    Though the rail project’s fat cost overruns and lack of transparency provided strong arguments to deny the GET extension, the project itself must continue to move forward. All eyes are now on Gov. David Ige and the Honolulu City Council, the next two stops for rail funding approval, to see what they’ll require by way of disclosure and oversight assurances to finalize the surcharge through 2027.

    Pressing issues of major public importance require more time to resolve. Let’s look at adding time for committee hearings beyond the 60 days each year of legislative session time mandated by the state Constitution.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    While the medical marijuana measure was too long in the making, we appreciate legislative leaders’ refusal to kick the can down the road any further, rescuing a measure that seemed dead with some fast-thinking procedural moves. We’re still scratching our heads over a fit of petulance by Sen. Josh Green that nearly torpedoed a deal, but we applaud the determination of Rep. Della Au Belatti, Sen.

  • Hawaii Lawmakers Quietly Dole Out Millions of Dollars in Grants

    · By Nathan Eagle

    A panel of state lawmakers spent the better part of a day last March listening to Hawaii nonprofits and others take advantage of the three minutes they were each allotted to make their case for government grant money.

    Silence ensued for the next six weeks and then a list of winners — a sliver of those who had applied — was announced without explanation as to why some charities were selected over others.

    More than 280 groups asked for a total of nearly $190 million from the state for fiscal year 2016, which starts July 1. They wanted money for everything from restoring Maunalua Bay and building a community kitchen at a charter school in Kona to programs providing free tax assistance and vocational training for poor women.

    Rep. Ty Cullen, seen here during a legislative hearing last week, handled grants-in-aid for the House.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    The informational briefing March 20 was the only public meeting on grants-in-aid. The rest of the decision-making process happened behind closed doors, just as it has for years in the Legislature.

    House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke and Senate Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda approved the final list of grants-in-aid last week after finishing their work on the overall state budget.

    The process involves the heads of nonprofits and others, including hired lobbyists, privately urging lawmakers to approve their grant request over others. Sometimes the lobbying comes from legislators themselves.

    The list was boiled down to 56 groups receiving $8 million in operating grants

  • Senate Shakeup Continues With New Leadership Lineup

    · By Nathan Eagle

    Newly anointed state Senate President Ron Kouchi announced a new lineup of committee chairs Wednesday, clearly rewarding those who supported ousting Donna Mercado Kim on Tuesday while putting others out to pasture.

    There were no leadership positions or committee chairmanships for Sens. Les Ihara — majority policy leader under Kim — Russell Ruderman, who headed the Agriculture Committee, or Kim herself.

    Meanwhile, the four members of a faction led by Sen. Jill Tokuda that made the coup possible all either kept the powerful posts they already held or got a promotion. Her hui went from supporting the Chess Club that together had made Kim president three years ago to supporting the nine-member Opihi faction that wanted Kouchi at the helm.

    Senate President Ron Kouchi stands at the helm for the first time Tuesday.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    Tokuda will remain chair of Ways and Means, which controls the state budget, and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz will be vice chair, overseeing the spending plan for capital improvement projects.

    Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran will continue chairing Judiciary and Labor and Sen. Roz Baker will stay on as chair of Consumer Protection.

    Sen. Mike Gabbard, the fourth member of Tokuda’s group, will be chair of a new Water, Land and Agriculture Committee. Nishihara, a friend of the biotech industry, was slated for the Agriculture Committee chairmanship but leadership evidently decided to merge that committee with the Water and Land Committee, which Sen. Laura Thielen previously held.

    Nishihara has been assigned to chair another merged committee, Public Safety, Government Operations and Military Affairs. Public Safety had been

  • Ian Lind: Still No Love for Public Interest Bills at Hawaii Legislature

    · By Ian Lind

    The Legislature should wrap up its 2015 session this week on schedule, despite the excitement created by the Senate’s last-minute palace coup.

    With the end in sight, I stopped to take a look at how some of the basic bread-and-butter public interest legislation, the kinds of bills that would increase openness and accountability, ultimately fared. These are the kind of things that usually don’t make headlines, but that would make life easier for concerned citizens.

    It’s a bit depressing to see that the several agencies most often seen as being essential to the public interest — the State Ethics Commission, Campaign Spending Commission, Office of Elections, and Office of Information Practices — entered the session with very limited agendas. A check of the packages of bills they had introduced shows they were extremely modest.

    Not a single bill introduced by the Hawaii State Ethics Commission passed this legislative session.

    Ethics Commission executive director Les Kondo has advised his commissioners in recent meetings that legislators have not been very receptive to proposals that would strengthen provisions of the state ethics code that are hard to enforce because the existing law is either lax or ambiguous. Whether this same insecurity is common to the other agencies isn’t clear, but is likely a factor in their limited proposals.

    And even those limited initiatives produced meager results.

    The State Ethics Commission introduced a package of nine bills with House and Senate versions.  Not a single one was passed.

    Some

  • Hawaii Legislature Passes $26B Budget, 100% Renewable Energy Goal

    · By Anita Hofschneider and Nathan Eagle

    The Legislature approved more than 100 bills Tuesday, including a $26 billion budget, legislation that requires Hawaii to reach 100 percent renewable energy by 2045 and a bill criminalizing sex trafficking.

    “The House took on some tough issues relating to the rail tax, Turtle Bay and the Maui public hospitals, and worked collaboratively with the administration and the Senate to come up with sound and reasonable solutions,” House Speaker Joseph Souki said in a statement.

    “We also crafted a responsible budget that addressed our long-term obligations and took care of our immediate social services needs and capital improvement requirements.”

    Chief among the measures passed was House Bill 500, a $26.17 billion budget for the next two fiscal years. That includes $13.4 billion in general funds over the same period.

    With her budget work almost done, Rep. Sylvia Luke smiles on the House floor Tuesday.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    The biennium budget for capital improvements totaled $2.4 billion, counting projects funded by general obligation bonds and all other means of financing.

    House Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke told her fellow lawmakers Tuesday that HB 500 scaled back spending on public infrastructure projects in light of the state’s hot construction industry.

    “The budget is essentially comprised of collective bargaining costs with certain investments in education and Medicaid,” Luke said.

    “Hawaii will be still spending more than it takes in over the next few years and will have depleted its carry over balances as early as 2021.” — Sen. Sam Slom

    But she noted some exceptions, such as $2 million for

  • Kouchi Takes Gavel as New Senate President After ‘Bloodless Coup’

    · By Nathan Eagle

    Hawaii Senate President Donna Mercado Kim passed the gavel to Ron Kouchi on Tuesday after a “bloodless coup” that changed leadership just two days before the 2015 session is set to end.

    The 19-6 vote followed a two-hour floor session in which the Senate gave final approval to dozens of bills. Sens. Les Ihara, Gil Riviere, Russell Ruderman, Sam Slom, Laura Thielen and Kim voted against the resolution that makes Kouchi president and keeps Will Espero as vice president.

    “I’ve been asked to lead in a different way and we’ll see if that works better than the one that has,” Kouchi told reporters after the vote.

    Outgoing Senate President Donna Mercado Kim passes the gavel to the newly elected Senate President Ron Kouchi on Tuesday.

    Cory Lum/Civil Beat

    Kouchi, who served 22 years on the Kauai County Council before being appointed to the Senate in 2010 by then-Gov. Linda Lingle, described his leadership style as collaborative.

    “Our goal is to try to take advantage of people’s interests and talents,” he said, noting that no one in a leadership role will also serve as a committee chair.

    Kouchi was able to take power after Senate factions realigned.

    “I did not want to take on a presidency where I would just be in the background and be a rubber stamp.” — Former Senate President Donna Mercado Kim

    A hui of four senators led by Jill Tokuda had helped Kim become president just prior to the start