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Hawaii lawmakers pass budget and suspend pay raises

In one of their last days to make or amend state law, state legislators passed a budget they say avoided catastrophic cuts to the most needy, killed a bill aimed at restricting police no-knock warrants and suspended raises for themselves and other key state officials.

Dozens of other bills that now could become law after Tuesday’s separate votes in the House and Senate include allowing police to take blood samples from drunken-driving suspects without their permission.

The $31.2 billion state budget approved Tuesday to cover the next two fiscal years was salvaged by $1.35 billion in federal COVID-19 relief funds.

The money helped lawmakers prevent almost certain cuts to $80 million in social services that would have affected a wide array of programs, including support for low-income families, homeless services, cash support for child care, HIV and TB prevention, senior citizen support, crime victim compensation and support for domestic violence programs and victims, said state Rep. Sylvia Luke (D, Punchbowl-Pauoa-Nuuanu), chairwoman of the House Finance Committee.

“The people who depend on these programs are not the ones who send email blasts to our offices or hold rallies,” Luke said. “But we are all that they have, and it is our job and our duty to recognize and protect the most vulnerable.”

Other bills passed Tuesday by the Legislature that are now going to Gov. David Ige for his possible signature or veto would:

>> Restructure how the Hawaii Tourism Authority is funded and change the way that transit accommodations taxes are collected.

The bill passed by the Legislature would cut HTA’s budget and make future funding uncertain, and eliminate the $103 million county share of the transient accommodations tax. In return, counties can raise their own TAT up to 3% for up to a 10-year period.

Several House members said Tuesday that the COVID-19 pandemic, which crippled Hawaii’s economy and called for changes in isle tourism, provides an opportunity to adjust HTA’s funding source.

>> Move money from some state special funds into the general fund, while putting a five-year sunset clause on other special funds.

>> Require landlords to engage in mediation with tenants who have not been able to pay rent after a current moratorium on evictions expires. The time period to terminate a rental agreement also would be extended to 15 days from five.

>> Appropriate $2 million to the state Department of Transportation for a pilot project to photograph red-light violators.

>> Stiffen drunken-driving laws two ways.

One bill passed Tuesday would allow police to require a driver to undergo a blood alcohol test even if the driver refuses to give consent, as long as law enforcement obtains a warrant from a judge. The measure also prohibits drivers with at least two prior drunken-driving convictions from qualifying for a deferred acceptance of a guilty or no-contest plea. The pretrial procedure gives offenders the chance to have their case dismissed if they comply with certain court conditions, such as not getting arrested.

The bill has the strong support of police and prosecutors but raised concerns from defense attorneys. Hawaii’s Office of the Public Defender argued that the measure authorizes “forced extractions of blood.”

The measure passed final reading in the House and Senate on Tuesday, although not without objections from some members.

State Sen. Laura Acasio (D, Hilo) said the bill allows police to ignore a “person’s objection to the invasion of his or her body.”

Senate Bill 765, also passed Tuesday, would stiffen penalties for highly intoxicated drivers and repeat offenders. Under the bill, drunken drivers could lose their driver’s licenses for longer periods of time. Highly intoxicated drivers with three or more offenses could lose their license for six years.

The measure also increases requirements for ignition interlock devices and makes habitual offenses subject to become Class B felonies.

The bill had support from county police and prosecutors as well as Mothers Against Drunk Driving Hawaii, which testified that the measure would help to remove “the most dangerous drivers from the road.”

Sen. Gil Riviere (D, Heeia- Laie-Waialua) was among a minority of Democrats who opposed the bill Tuesday.

“This is an awkward one to oppose because nobody can support or condone drunk driving and excessive drunk driving,” Riviere told his colleagues as they took the final vote.

Rivere said he was opposed to upgrading the penalty for habitual, highly intoxicated drivers to a Class B felony.

“It becomes too punitive,” he said, adding that it could end up putting people in prison for longer periods when what they really need is substance abuse treatment.

>> Repeal the Hawaii tobacco prevention and control trust fund, and transfer any balances to the general fund in 2025.

>> Suspend 10% pay raises for state legislators and different raises for the governor, department heads and judges to Jan. 1, 2023. In the last days of the legislative session before Tuesday’s vote, new language was added to fund the state reapportionment commission.

Correction: A previous version of this story mischaracterized Sen. Gil Riviere’s concerns about SB765. He is concerned about upgrading penalties for habitual, highly intoxicated driving to a Class B felony.

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