Legislature Adjourns, Attention Shifts To Governorʻs Intent On Key Bills

May 2, 2019

Gov. David Ige, Mike McCartney and others shake hands with lawmakers as the Legislature wraps up for the year at the state Capitol on Thursday.
Credit Ryan Finnerty

Hawaiʻi lawmakers wrapped up their 2019 legislative session Thursday with an olive branch extended to Gov. David Ige.

Several of the governorʻs key nominations were approved by the state Senate this session and, on the final day, Mike McCartney, tapped to continue as director of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, won confirmation on a 15-10 vote.

Senate President Ron Kouchi said the confirmation of the governorʻs appointees was an indicator of Kouchiʻs "commitment to working with the governor," despite their past political disagreements.

Lawmakers will see whether that pledge holds up as the governor reviews the more than 200 bills sent to him by the Legislature this year.

New rules were passed on everything from short term rentals to industrial hemp, but the issue of fresh water usage rights was unresolved.

Current water permit holders, which include Alexander and Baldwin, public utilities on Kaua'i and Hawai'i Island, and small farmers and ranchers lobbied lawmakers to extend their existing temporary permits. But legislators in the state House and Senate could not agree on a solution.

"What we have now is a legal void," said J. Kalani English, Senate majority leader. "We have no direction on how to go. We have actually no legal authority to move ahead come January 1st next year to continue delivering water anywhere that state delivers water. So as it stands right now, January 1st, water stops flowing everywhere."

House lawmakers, who approved H.B. 1326 extending the permits for a year, blamed senators for not resolving the matter.

"The House moved the water bill over. Our bill died in the Senate," said Scott Saiki, House speaker. "The temporary permits will be expiring on December 31st. I'm just hopeful that the governor will spend the summer with the Department of Land and Natural Resources to see how it can be addressed when it happens in December."

In his own press conference after the Legislature adjourned, Gov. David Ige said he is committed to finding a solution to the water rights standoff, but would not rush to implement one because of the importance of fresh water access.

Ige also said he will be considering a measure to decriminalize the possession of a small amount of marijuana. House Bill 1383 would decriminalize possession of three grams or less of cannabis. The measure passed both the House and Senate earlier this week.

English said the measure is a small step, but legalizing recreational use of cannabis would have fully decriminalized it.

"All of the studies that we're looking at, that I've looked at, show that with legalization, there comes a different form of control," English said.

But Ige expressed his concerns with the bill. 

"As I've talked to governors from other states who have gone to recreational [marijuana]. You know people assume that once it becomes recreational or decriminalized, that it's legal, and it's not legal by federal law. And I think that becomes the confusion, and that's always been my concern."

Ige said he will review the bill and assess its impact before deciding on it.

Other bills passed by the Legislature call for all-mail ballot elections and collection of taxes on short term vacation rentals. Among the measures failing to pass this year was one to increase the minimum wage.

The governor has until June 24 to notify the Legislature if he intends to veto any measures. 

Ryan Finnerty, Casey Harlow and the Associated Press contributed to this report.