Friday, February 27, 2009

Tobacco taxes face 40% hike

HONOLULU -- It’s not a good time to be a smoker.

State lawmakers are scrounging about in a tough budget year, looking for spare cash that will raise the fewest hackles possible.

They’ve lighted upon tobacco as the fattest bad boy in town and are contemplating up to 40 percent tax increases.

The anti-smoking attitude was exemplified in a proclamation declaring Feb. 27 as “Kick Butts Day” read by Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona earlier today in front of a hundred or so screaming young people. The red-T-shirt-clad audience was a coalition from Hawaii Real, and they were sending their message loud and clear.

"We see the new smokeless alternatives as an attempt to create a new generation of tobacco users," Aiona said in a statement. "But I am very proud that more adults and teens are making the right decision not to smoke."

This is one cause that state lawmakers seem to agree with the administration on, at least in a year when tax pickings are slim. Both the House and the Senate have bills hiking taxes on tobacco products.

The House bill, HB 1175, would increase the per-cigarette tax from 10 cents to 14 cents.

The Senate bill, SB 38, raises the tax on other tobacco products from 40 percent of the wholesale price to 60 percent. SB 38 unanimously cleared the Senate Health Committee and is scheduled to be heard by the Senate Ways and Means Committee on Monday.

Advocates note that increasing tobacco taxes and using the money to educate youth on the dangers of smoking has dramatically cut teens’ smoking.

Fewer than 10 percent of the high school students say they have smoked at least once in the past 30 days, compared to almost 25 percent in 2000. But smokeless tobacco use has increased during the same period, said Trisha Nakamura, policy and advocacy director for the Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawaii.

“A tax increase will not only bring revenue into our State but it will reduce youth tobacco use,” Nakamura said.

Not everyone thinks tobacco users should be targeted for tax increases, however.

“I'm opposed to this hate and this madness. Would you please leave our people that smoke alone?” said Michael Zehner.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Hawaiians in da House (and the Senate)

HONOLULU -- More than 300 people chanted, danced, blew conch shells and beat drums in the Capitol Rotunda starting at 4 a.m. and continuing well into the afternoon today, protesting the ceded lands case being heard in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Details of the oral arguments by attorneys for the Gov. Linda Lingle administration and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, as well as a transcript, are well-documented here by Honolulu land-use attorney Robert Thomas.

The Hawaii Legislature has also leapt into the fray.

The House and the Senate have passed SCR 40, urging the administration to drop the appeal.

A more substantive bill, SB 1677, requires a two-thirds vote by the Legislature before ceded lands can be sold. It unanimously passed the Senate on Feb. 20 and will be taken up by the

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Bipartisan aloha hits Washington, D.C.

There were shakas all around when Gov. Linda Lingle and President Obama got together for a photo op Sunday night, one of two meetings the governor had with Obama while in Washington, D.C. for the National Governors Association meeting.

(Photo provided by the Office of Governor Felix Camacho of Guam.)

An uncivil discourse on civil unions

HONOLULU -- Supporters and opponents of civil unions were being subjected to cutting questions during a packed Senate Judiciary Committee hearing this morning.

The Senate took up HB 444, after the House passed it Feb. 12 by a 33-17 vote. It looked like the overwhelming amount of testimony was going to keep the hearing going for hours. The committee broke for session and was expected back at 1:30 p.m.

Proponents such as Alan Spector, of the Family Equality Coalition, say it’s difficult being called diseased and a threat to the state and compared to molesters and rapists just because they’re gay.

Many of the opponents, such as the Roman Catholic Diocese of Honolulu, said they do indeed believe homosexuality is wrong or against God’s wishes, and the state shouldn’t condone it.

Almost 70 percent of Hawaii voters in 1998 passed a constitutional amendment allowing the state Legislature to define marriage as between a man and a woman. A 1997 law allowed same-sex couples to register as “reciprocal beneficiaries,” including hospital visitation rights, authority to sue in wrongful death cases and inheritance and property rights.

Kathleen Sands, an American Studies professor at the University of Hawaii, said the framers of the U.S. Constitution contemplated a “live and let live” philosophy that Hawaii lawmakers should follow.

“This in no way requires that opponents ‘condone’ or ‘celebrate’ my relationship. In the United States, we don't expect Mormons to ‘condone’ Scientologists, or evangelical Christians to ‘celebrate’ Islam. But neither are these groups allowed to deny each other health care, parental rights, bereavement leave or life insurance,” Sands said.

“Marriage equality requires no more than does equity among the many religious groups that already co-exist in our state. And it deserves no less.”

The bill would allow same-sex couples to have all the benefits, protections and responsibilities of marriage after having their civil union performed by a judge or member of the clergy. The state would also recognize such unions performed in other states. The committee made it clear that it is not redefining marriage, but merely allowing civil unions.

But Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona doesn’t see it that way. He points to overwhelming public opposition to same-sex marriage that culminated with the 1998 referendum.

“(The bill) now attempts to circumvent the will of the people by authorizing the equivalent to same sex marriage, albeit under a different name,” Aiona said in written testimony.

“That is, despite not referring to a civil union as ‘marriage,’ this bill would confer all of the rights, duties, and obligations of marriage to participants in a civil union In view of the above, this bill clearly seeks to modify all Hawai'i law so that the terms "marriage" and "civil union" are synonymous.”

“If the public is on record as being overwhelmingly opposed to the concept of same sex marriage, how could one conclude that they would support its 'identical twin' just because it goes by a different name?”

Currently, only Massachusetts and Connecticut allow gay marriages, and Vermont, New Jersey and New Hampshire provide some, but not all, of the benefits of marriage by recognizing civil unions.

Friday, February 20, 2009

This land is my land, this land is my land

HONOLULU -- Hawaiian activists plan to set fire to Gov. Linda Lingle’s U.S. Supreme Court petition and light their torches with it as they rally at the state Capitol against the administration’s plans to sell some of the land it holds in trust.

Like a government version of Kramer vs. Kramer, two state agencies will duke it out in a courtroom Wednesday when the Lingle administration and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs each tells the highest court in the land that the other has no right to property ceded to the state following the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy.

“This state appeal has the potential to undermine all Native Hawaiian programs and assets as well as undermine the legal basis for Native Hawaiian federal recognition,” OHA Chairwoman Haunani Apoliona said during a news conference today on the grounds of Iolani Palace, an important symbol to the Native Hawaiian community.

While the lawyers fight, Native Hawaiians, alongside those “Hawaiian at heart,” will hold a vigil at the Capitol from 4 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday. There will be prayers, pahu drums, chanting every hour, on the hour as part of a series of events planned that day in Honolulu, Seattle, San Francisco, Salt Lake City, New Haven, Conn., and Washington, D.C.

Activists are also calling for Hawaiians and sympathizers to take a day off work Wednesday to join the rally and send a message about the strength of the movement.

“A far-reaching decision by the U.S. Supreme Court could affect OHA’s ability to carry out its mission of bettering the conditions of Native Hawaiians,” Apoliona said.

Underscoring how divided the state is over the issue, the Democrat-controlled Hawaii Senate today passed a bill requiring a two-thirds vote of the Legislature before ceded lands can be sold and a resolution urging the Republican governor and her attorney general to withdraw their appeal. The Democrat-controlled House, meanwhile, didn’t move similar bills by the deadline for consideration.

OHA’s response to the state petition bases its argument on the Apology Resolution, enacted by Congress in 1993, on the 100th anniversary of the Hawaiian monarchy. OHA maintains it places a cloud on the title to ceded lands, forcing the state government to hold them intact until questions of Native Hawaiian self-governance can be answered. Last year, the Hawaii Supreme Court upheld that view.

The state disagrees.

“These public trust lands were transferred by the Congress to the people of the state of Hawaii in 1959 for the benefit of all the people of the state of Hawaii to be used for the public purposes set out in the Admission Act like for the establishment of public schools and public improvements for betterment of homes and farms,” says Hawaii Attorney General Mark Bennett. “The Admission Act explicitly gave the state the right to sell or transfer ceded lands for the purposes set out in the Admission Act.”

Ceded lands comprise 1.2 million acres of land on all Hawaiian islands - about 29 percent of the total land mass of the state and more than 95 percent of the public lands held by the state.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Another day older and deeper in debt

It’s common, but usually not advisable, to want to max out your credit cards when times get tough.

The Hawaii Legislature is no exception, but the House Finance Committee is taking a cautious approach to bond debt at its hearing this afternoon.

A full slate of debt-related bills are being considered following last week’s grim financial news during a briefing by William Pound, executive director of the National Conference of State Legislatures.

The Legislature has no choice but to be cautious. The state constitution limits the amount of debt the state can undertake so that annual payments of principle and interest can’t exceed 18.5 percent of the average net General Fund revenues for the preceding three fiscal years.

The House, in HB 34, plans to set the stage to borrow $1.8 billion in general obligation bonds over the next three years – coincidentally the same amount economists have predicted the state will fall short in its General Fund budget over that period.

That amount will raise the state’s annual principle and interest payment just 10 percent, from $589.3 million to $648.7 million, between now and 2012, if the state borrows no more money in the meantime. Hawaii generally borrows using 20-year serial bonds, with payments on principle not kicking in until the fifth year.

Hawaii was ranked 11th in the nation in per capita debt in 2007 – with each man, woman and child in the state shouldering $4,665 in debt on the state’s behalf. That compares to $10,504 in Massachusetts, the highest state, and $674 in Tennessee, the lowest.

Hawaii ranks 13th in state debt as a percent of personal income, with debt representing 11.89 percent in 2007. Alaska, the highest state, has debt at 24.01 percent of personal income and Tennessee, the lowest state, has 2.02 percent.

Lawmakers hope borrowing more money for infrastructure will mean more federal stimulus money will come to Hawaii for needed projects.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Gov. Lingle goes to Washington

Gov. Linda Lingle heads to Washing-
ton D.C., Thursday to join coll-
eagues from other states, three common-
wealths and two territories for the winter meeting of the National Governors Association.

Jobs, the economy, infrastructure and health care top the list of concerns the NGA will tackle during the three-day meeting. Lingle doesn’t plan to return to Hawaii until Friday, Feb. 27. Lt. Gov. James “Duke” Aiona will join Lingle for some of the sessions.

The itinerary includes a black-tie evening with President Obama and the First Lady on Sunday at the White House. Governors return to the White House on Monday, Feb. 23. They’ll hold meetings with Obama and members of his Cabinet on issues important to their states.

States currently are jostling for their share of the $787 billion stimulus plan that Obama is expected to sign into law this week. Hawaii may get almost $1 billion of that.

Under the plan, the states will divide $27 billion – far less than the $64 billion they said they needed – for “shovel ready” infrastructure projects. The law requires the projects to pass federal government’s scrutiny and be judged ready to go within 120 days in order to infuse jobs into the economy quickly.

Founded in 1908, the NGA is the collective voice of the nation's governors and represents governors on Capitol Hill and before the Administration.

Lingle also is scheduled to meet with Sen. Daniel Inouye and Sen. Daniel Akaka, both Democrats from Hawaii.

Lingle’s enthusiasm for energy self-sufficiency will be shared with her colleagues Sunday during a panel discussion with experts on energy infrastructure policy, including siting, regulation, financing and deployment and development of "smart grid" technologies and new pipeline systems. Panelists include Pat Wood III, principal, Wood3 Resources and Jesse Berst, managing director,

"Our nation's competitiveness and national security are inextricably linked to energy," Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, chairwoman of the Natural Resources Committee, said in a statement. "Establishing an effective, sustainable energy infrastructure system will ensure that we can meet America's future energy needs."

The focus on infrastructure will be highlighted Saturday with the Miller Center Discussion and Debate about Infrastructure. Modeled on Oxford-style debates, the Miller Center National Debate series looks at issues surrounding America's role in the world, its responsibility to its citizens and the way its policies fulfill its founding principles.

The debate will focus on balancing a federal infrastructure policy with energy, environmental and economic priorities. Robert MacNeil, former co-anchor of the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, will moderate. Panelists include NGA Chairman Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell; California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; Douglas Foy, president of DIF Enterprises; and JayEtta Hecker, senior fellow of the Bipartisan Policy Center.

The last half hour of debate will be question and answer session among all governors. The debate will be webcast live.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Hawaii considers marijuana stamps

HONOLULU -- Talk about your green stamps.

The Hawaii House today advanced a bill that would issue cannabis distribution stamps to participants in the state’s medical marijuana program.

Hawaii has had a medical marijuana program since 2000, allowing doctors to write a pot prescription for everything from glaucoma to AIDS to cancer. The law allows patients with prescriptions to grow what is known in state law as an “adequate supply.”

That’s further defined as “an amount of marijuana jointly possessed between the qualifying patient and the primary caregiver that is not more than is reasonably necessary to assure the uninterrupted availability of marijuana for the purpose of alleviating the symptoms or effects of a qualifying patient's debilitating medical condition; provided that an "adequate supply" shall not exceed three mature marijuana plants, four immature marijuana plants, and one ounce of usable marijuana per each mature plant.”

The problem, unless the patient has the land and the ability to grow his or her own, has been that would-be users must break the law to get their legal supply.

“If a patient is unable to produce enough medicine, they must resort to transacting on the black market, with a variety of inherent risks,” said Big Island proponent Matthew Rifkin in testimony to a House committee.

The Legislative Reference Bureau, in its 2004 publication “In Search Of A Viable Distribution System For Hawaii's Medical Marijuana Program,” recommended the distribution-stamp program.

Under the program, a farmer puts up some land for secure growing facilities and a certified facilitator serves as the go-between from farmer to user. Users are issued stamps at a cost of no more than 50 cents per gram of marijuana.

The bill now moves to two other committees before coming back to the full House for another vote, then on to the Senate. Its chances of passing are pretty good, with only two of the 6 Republicans in the 51-member House voting no.

Law enforcement hopes it can stop the bill before it gets too far.

“The message could be interpreted as the state of Hawaii Legislature legalizing drug trafficking within the state,” said Paul K. Ferreira, acting police chief for the Big Island. “To expand the medical marijuana laws and amend our current statutes from their current restrictions would only assist those individuals now growing marijuana illegally and generating huge profits by allowing them to use the medical marijuana law to aid in avoiding detection.”

Monday, February 9, 2009

National group to bring bad budget news

HONOLULU -- If misery loves company, Hawaii’s got plenty of both.

A new report by the National Conference of State Legislatures says the budget gap – the difference between what states have and what they need – has moved nationally from “sobering” to “distressing.”

NCSL Executive Director William Pound will bear the bad news personally to Hawaii on Thursday, when he’ll address the House Finance Committee.

Pound is expected to update the committee on current fiscal conditions, strategies being employed to meet budget shortfalls and whether states should expect much relief from the federal bailout, known as the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which is currently being negotiated in Congress.

Hawaii’s three-year budget shortfall is estimated at $1.8 billion, but even that intimidating figure could become more frightening. NCSL, in its interactive budget map, shows Hawaii’s FY 2009 budget gap at $353.3 million, or 5.8 percent of the state general fund.

Even though some states have taken corrective actions, the current FY 2009 gap still stands at $47.4 billion, on top of the $40.3 billion shortfall for the 2008 FY, according to NCSL, whose budget analysts are predicting it’s going to get worse before it gets better.

"These figures are absolutely alarming, both in their magnitude and in the painful decisions they present to state lawmakers," Corina Eckl, fiscal program director for NCSL, said in a statement. "The easy budget fixes are long gone, only hard and unpopular options remain.”

Thursday, February 5, 2009

House committee advances gay marriage bill

HONOLULU -- The House Judiciary Committee just gave the nod to gay marriage, moving HB 444 forward after hearing four hours of testimony.

The bill would allow same-sex couples to have all the benefits, protections and responsibilities of marriage after having their civil union performed by a judge or member of the clergy. The state would also recognize such unions performed in other states.

The committee made it clear that it is not redefining marriage, but merely allowing civil unions.

Currently, only Massachusetts and Connecticut allow gay marriages, and Vermont, New Jersey and New Hampshire provide some, but not all, of the benefits of marriage by recognizing civil unions.

The bill is on a fast track to the full House, during a legislative session that is so short of money that lawmakers have time to focus on cost-free but controversial bills such as this.

With 32 of the 51-member House signed on as cosponsors, the bill seems to have an easy trip to the alter of the Senate, where it faces an uncertain future.

About 69 percent of Hawaii voters in 1998 passed a constitutional amendment allowing, but not requiring, the state Legislature to define marriage as between a man and a woman. A 1997 law allowed same-sex couples to register as “reciprocal beneficiaries,” including hospital visitation rights, authority to sue in wrongful death cases and inheritance and property rights.

Watched Obama's inauguration live on your PC? Your computer may have been hijacked.

Many people who watched live streaming video of the inauguration of U.S. President Barack Obama on Jan. 20 may not realize that their PC was used to send the video to other PCs, too.

That's according to Brian Livingston of the Web site Windows Secrets, which claims CNN used Web viewers' PCs to bounce the inauguration around the globe.

This bothers a lot of folks out in the blogosphere. What are your thoughts on this?

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Ceded lands bills moving forward

With oral arguments in a U.S. Supreme Court case just weeks away, committees in both houses of the Legislature advanced bills today reining in the state administration’s ability to sell ceded lands.

The alii (chiefs) of the Royal Order of King Kamehameha I, wearing their trademark red and yellow capes, dominated the front row of committee rooms and were among the dozens who testified in support of a moratorium on the sale of Ceded lands.

Ceded lands are lands once owned by the Hawaiian monarchy but ceded to the state to be held in trust for Hawaiians. Ceded lands comprise 1.2 million acres of land on all Hawaiian islands - about 29 percent of the total land mass of the state and more than 90 percent of state-owned lands.

Eight bills were being heard in their first committees today, ranging from an outright ban of the sale of the lands (HB 1667, HB 1805, HB 1841, HB 902, SB 1085, SB 475) to the requirement that the Legislature approve each deal by a two-thirds majority (SB 1677, SB 476).

All of the House bills moved forward unanimously, with HB 1805 further modified to include the two-thirds requirement favored by the Senate.

At most immediate issue is the Lingle administration’s appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court of a Hawaii Supreme Court opinion that placed a moratorium on the state selling ceded lands until an agreement could be worked out between the state and the Native Hawaiian people. That case is scheduled to be heard in Washington D.C. on Feb. 25.

Attorney General Mark Bennett, one of the few opponents testifying about the bills, said passing legislation now is wrong from both a legal and a political perspective.

“The bill raises the potential for additional federal court lawsuits against the state by persons oppose3d to government programs that provide benefits to Native Hawaiians,” Bennett said. “We also believe that it makes sense as a policy matter for the state to retain flexibility as to the use and management of its land.”

Clyde Namuo, administrator for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which is battling the state administration in the lawsuit, said he and Bennett have worked side-by-side preserving Native Hawaiian rights in the past. But now, he said, he’s reaching a new understanding.

“Eight years ago when I joined OHA, I wondered why Native Hawaiians seemed so angry,” Namuo said. “Listening today to this discussion, I finally get it.”

Sunday, February 1, 2009

Lawmakers face PR nightmare on raises

HONOLULU – Of all the years to get a 36-percent raise.

Hawaii legislators face a PR nightmare this year: trying to justify their $12,808 salary increase while constituents right and left are losing their jobs. The increase, which went into effect Jan. 1, brings lawmakers’ base salaries to $48,708.

A second raise of 3.5 percent is scheduled for Jan. 1, 2010, unless the Legislature passes a bill to suspend it.

The raises were put into place by an independent Commission on Salaries that voters approved on the 2006 ballot. The commission also prescribed pay hikes for the governor and Cabinet, and state judges.

Being a legislator in Hawaii is not considered a full-time job – the legislative session lasts from mid-January to early May and was designed so that “citizen lawmakers,” rather than professional legislators, could bring their particular areas of interest and expertise to the Capitol.

Hawaii lawmakers are by no means the poorest or the best paid, according to a study by the Lexington, Ky-based, Council of State Governments. The council provides policy analysis and tracks national conditions and trends in state governments.

The study, “State Legislator Compensation: A Trend Analysis,” found that the average legislative salary in 2005 was $25,908, and hasn’t kept up with inflation.

Keon Chi, editor-in-chief of CSG’s annual Book of the States, wrote the 38 page report.

“Compensation levels have an impact on recruitment, retention and the work of the legislature,” said Chi in a statement. “If legislators are not paid adequately, then candidates are drawn from a smaller pool. High pay broadens that pool. You can’t expect to attract good candidates with pay that is lower when compared to other jobs and professions.”

But these are tough times, and Gov. Linda Lingle has asked the Legislature to freeze raises for her and her staff, as well as themselves. She says that could save more than $4 million.

But legislative leaders, including House Speaker Calvin Say, D-St. Louis Heights, Wilhelmina Rise, and Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-Nanakuli, Maili, Waianae, say the raises are long overdue and well deserved. They note that the executive branch and judges have received raises, but the Legislature has received only three raises in 15 years.

“Given those increases and the rates of pay provided to the Executive and Judicial branches, asking legislators to forgo their pay raise places an undue and inequitable burden on the Legislative branch,” Hanabusa said in a statement. “As we address these issues, all concerned have a duty to understand the true facts behind our deliberations, to work within the spirit and letter of our laws, and to avoid creating distracting political conflicts where none exist.”

Lingle’s proposed salary freeze would affect 208 employees, including the governor, lieutenant governor, cabinet heads and deputies and justices of the Hawaii Supreme Court and all state court judges.

The administration employees are scheduled for salary hikes of 5 percent on July 1, 2009 and 3.5 percent on July 1, 2010. The justices and judges are scheduled for salary increases of 10 percent in 2009 and 3.5 percent in 2010.

Lingle’s bill, HB 1109, asks state leaders to “lead by example during fiscally challenging times” by deferring for two years the salary increases recommended by the Commission on Salaries for legislators, judges, and senior officials of the executive branch for the next two fiscal years.

Other related bills:

SB 479, filed by Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, by request, requires an across-the-board decrease of the salaries recommended by the commission on salaries for executive branch heads and their deputies, judges and justices, and legislators.

SB 363, by Sen. Sam Slom, R-Hawaii Kai, Kahala, abolishes the Salary Commission, while SB 368, also by Slom, proposes constitutional amendment allowing the Legislature to suspend the increase in legislative salaries as recommended by the Salary Commission.

HB 1816, by Rep. Della Belatti, D-Tantalus, Makiki, McCully, reduces by 5 percent the current salaries of executive, legislative, and judicial branch employees and freezes salaries of such employees for fiscal years 2009 and 2010. HB 1670, also by Belatti, requires the Commission on Salaries to hold public hearings and provide public notice of each hearing.

SB 221, by Sen. Will Espero, D-Ewa, Lower Waipahu, requires the Commission on Salaries to conduct a public hearing on Oahu prior to submitting its recommendations to the Legislature. Democratic Sens. Robert Bunda, Mike Gabbard, and Dwight Takamine, as well as the Republican Sen. Slom, have cosigned on the bill.