HONOLULU — State lawmakers wrapped up their 2019 legislative session Thursday after several months of work at the state Capitol debating and passing bills, including measures reducing penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana and establishing all-mail elections.
They also approved a measure requiring vacation rental platforms to collect taxes on behalf of hosts and appropriated funds to slightly expand public preschool.
The Legislature passed more than 200 bills since the session began in January. That’s out of more than 3,000 bills introduced by lawmakers.
Among the bills that failed were those to legalize recreational marijuana and boost the minimum wage, even though these two issues were top priorities of the Democratic Party of Hawaii.
Gov. David Ige must notify lawmakers by June 24 if he intends to veto any bills.
Here’s a look at some of the highlights from this year’s legislative session:
— VACATION RENTAL TAXES — Requires websites like Airbnb to collect and pay taxes on behalf of short-term vacation rental hosts. Advocates want the revenue the measure would raise. But critics are worried it will hamper county efforts to crack down on illegal rentals and exacerbate the state’s housing shortage.
— MARIJUANA DECRIMINALIZATION — Reduces penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana. It makes possessing three grams (one-tenth of an ounce) or less punishable by a fine of $130. Currently that amount is considered a petty misdemeanor and subject to up to $1,000 in fines. The bill would enable purging the criminal records of those nabbed for possessing three grams or less of marijuana in the past.
— BAIL REFORM — Allows a judge to order the release of a defendant without the defendant paying cash up front for bail. Instead, the defendant would sign a promissory note and commit to showing up for trial. Defendants would be liable for the bail payment if they don’t show in court as required. The measure aims to make bail fairer to the poor.
— ELECTION REFORMS — Measures instituting all-mail voting starting with the 2020 primary elections and automatic recounts for races with narrow victory margins. Lawmakers hope the measures will boost voter turnout and confidence in elections.
— PRESCHOOL — Appropriated funds for 10 new pre-kindergarten classrooms at public schools as well as 18 pre-kindergarten classrooms at charter schools that were due to lose federal funding. There are currently 26 preschool classrooms at public schools. The governor had sought funding for 21 new preschool classrooms, but money fell short. “Educational issues are unfortunately very expensive. I know every House member supports universal preschool, but the fact of the matter is cost is a consideration for us,” House Speaker Scott Saiki said.
Lawmakers didn’t pass bills that would have legalized recreational marijuana, boosted the minimum wage and automatically registered voters when they apply for driver’s licenses and identification cards.
A measure to allow the Alexander & Baldwin real estate company, farmers, ranchers and utilities to extend their water leases by one year while they work with the state on long-term leases failed.
Senate President Ron Kouchi said he lamented the collapse of the minimum wage bill. “I’m really disappointed we weren’t able to make that work. It puts a damper on the other things that we did,” he said after the session adjourned.
Senators had approved a tax credit for small businesses to offset the wage increase.
The House proposed a minimum wage that would have factored in whether workers received health insurance through an employer. But the state Labor Department notified lawmakers in the last two weeks of the session that wouldn’t be allowed under the law.
“We really did want to take into account the kinds of benefits that employers in Hawaii, unlike their mainland counterparts, pay for their workers, including part-time workers,” Saiki said.
Saiki said lawmakers would continue to look at the issue.
Lawmakers appropriated $150,000 for a state agency to study and develop a plan to build high-rise leasehold condominiums on state land for sale to Hawaii residents. The program, proposed by Sen. Stanley Chang of Hawaii Kai, is modeled on public housing in Singapore.
Lawmakers voted to create a working group that will recommend how to reduce the use of plastic, including in the food service industry. Lawmakers rejected a more severe proposal that would have prohibited restaurants and state agencies from using plastic bottles, utensils, stirring sticks, polystyrene foam containers and straws.