LIHU‘E — After a frenzied 2023 legislative session, Kaua‘i’s state legislators — Senate President Ron Kouchi, House Majority Leader Nadine Nakamura, House Majority Floor Leader Dee Morikawa and state Rep. Luke Evslin — spoke with The Garden Island to discuss the session’s successes and failures.
Reflecting on the year, Nakamura championed a series of affordable housing bills passed into law this year, which allocated more than $600 million in funding toward the state’s Rental Housing Revolving Fund, Dwelling Unit Revolving Fund, as well as for homelessness projects such as Kauhale and ‘Ohana zones.
“To me, it’s the No. 1 issue,” Nakamura said. “What we’re trying to do, and I think the governor is trying to do as well, is to address some of the issues of homelessness — to create housing opportunities, both short-term and long-term; getting people off the streets, out of the bushes and into transitional housing, where they can get services they need to get back on their feet. And I think Kaua‘i has some great models to use to do that.”
While she showed excitement over the affordable housing funds, Nakamura expressed frustration over the death of House Bill 1396, a comprehensive bill focused on
If passed, the bill would have given counties funds to identify sewage system priority areas, created a dedicated cesspool conversion section of the state Department of Health and forced the department to develop a public outreach strategy regarding cesspool conversions. Additionally, the bill would have created an indefinite tax credit system for homeowners converting their cesspools.
Evslin also highlighted the importance of converting the state’s 88,000 cesspools, noting that it isn’t just environmental — it also directly impacts Kaua‘i’s housing crisis.
“At least on Kaua‘i, we have really liberal zoning codes now, which allow four units by right on all residential lots,” he said. “But unless you’re on (a sewage system), you can’t do those four units. If you’ve got a cesspool, you can’t get a building permit at all — you can’t even close your lanai. And if you’ve got a septic system, all you can do is two units. So, I really see sewer expansion as one of the really important keys to our housing crisis.”
Morikawa agreed, noting how crucial it will be for state and county officials to develop a robust sewer infrastructure plan moving forward.
“That is probably a very, very big issue that we’re going to have to deal with pretty quickly,” she said. “People are just not sure if they need to invest in septic, or if they’re going to wait for the county to start doing more sewer improvements.”
Transitioning from dirty waste to dirty politics, the legislators also discussed the session’s “good government” bills, aimed at increasing government transparency and weeding out corruption.
While at least 26 such bills have passed into law this session — ranging from journalist protections from revealing sources to a ban on lobbyist contributions during the legislative session — one bill promising radical change to the state’s politics died in conference session.
Designed as an opt-in full public financing program for state and county electoral candidates, Senate Bill 1543 in its original form would have cost $30 million to implement — a price tag that Morikawa found too high to support.
“If a person can show that he’s close to 50 percent favoritism for those donations, then maybe that person should be allowed to get access to that money,” she said. “But just to give it to anybody to run is kind of a waste of taxpayers’ money, I think. It’s just my personal opinion, but that’s a lot of money.”
Evslin echoed Morikawa’s sentiments, suggesting the state bolster its existing partial public financing system instead.
“Are there ways that we can strengthen the matching funds program to make it more attractive to people?” he asked. “I would prefer we go down that road.”
Another contentious bill that died in conference session, Senate Bill 304 would have required visitors age 15 and older to pay a $50 “green fee” in order to enter any state park, beach, forest, hiking trail or “other natural areas of state land.”
Kouchi — who’s opposed SB 304 since it was introduced — argued such a fee could not be enforced. Instead, he suggested expanding Hawai‘i’s existing park reservation system as a more realistic alternative.
“If we’re not able to enforce this collection, then why would somebody voluntarily sign up for this app?” he asked. “So until we get technology that would allow us to be more effective in the collection and tracking of compliance, I think the park reservation system is the best method by which we can do it.”
“I have advocated from the beginning that we need to expand on the reservation system that we have in place, like in Ke‘e — it generates about a million (dollars) a year,” he continued. “Wai‘anapanapa on Maui, $3.5 million. Diamond Head is about $1 million a month. I believe we could identify a couple other parks on the Big Island, and we could generate the kind of money we need to then reinvest in our infrastructure.”
From start to finish, Hawai‘i’s 2023 legislative session was a hectic one — something Evslin had to learn quickly, as he stepped into his position mid-session, following former state Rep. Jimmy Tokioka’s resignation in February.
“It’s a crazy place — I mean that in the best possible way,” he said. “It’s like the county council on speed, it’s 300 times per day. People say it’s like drinking from a fire hose, and that’s almost an understatement. It’s been exciting and fun and frustrating, and really, really, really gratifying.”
While Evslin noted the sudden transition to state politics was chaotic, Nakamura told The Garden Island that he’s since settled in well.
“We’re fortunate to have Luke,” Nakamura said. “He’s very into policy, understands the county perspective and is always trying to create that linkage. So, that’s going to help Kaua‘i in the long run.”
Evslin didn’t shy away from showing his appreciation for the other legislators, either.
“We have this pretty cohesive delegation, and I feel so fortunate to be part of it,” Evslin said. “I knew they had big positions, but I don’t think I realized the extent to how well-respected the three of them are in the building … I’ve been learning a lot from them, and I think Kaua‘i is fortunate to have them representing us.”
Jackson Healy, reporter, can be reached at 808-647-4966 or email@example.com.
Source: The Garden Island