If I had to summarize this session in one word, it would be: disappointing. If I had two words, it would be: deeply disappointing.

Conference committees are supposed to be the stage at which the House and Senate resolve nagging differences between two different drafts of the same bill. While sometimes the differences are too great to resolve, the expectation is that most bills that reach conference committee can and should pass. Considerable work has already been done to get the bills to this point and open minds can usually figure out how to hammer out a final piece of legislation.
 
This year was different. House leaders desperately wanted to pass a tax on high-income pensioners. Presumably under the direction of the House leadership, the House Committee on Finance refused to sign off on a number of environmental bills (this might have been true across the board, but I can only speak on behalf of the bills I was tracking). Most observers concluded this was intended to force the Senate to agree to the pension tax. 

The Senate refused to go along. And to increase the pressure, the Senate announced all bills needed to be finished before 6:00 pm on Friday, May 6th or the Senate would stop negotiating.
 
This type of grandstanding has occurred before. When the 6:00 pm deadline passed, most observers assumed that one side or the other, (House or Senate) would blink and a bulk of the bills in conference committee would then be passed. 

To the shock of many, when the two budget committees came back at 9:30 pm they had only passed four or five revenue bills (not including the tax on pensions) and promptly declared the session over. Numerous bills that had been held up by the House leadership simply died. 

This result was simply stunning. Critical bills died without so much as a whimper. Bills like the one that would have reallocated income from the barrel tax to fund clean energy programs and a bill to charge small fees to fund the Office of Environmental Quality Control, a chronically underfunded and understaffed agency.  Bills like the popular proposed fee on paper/plastic bags, which would have provided a big new revenue source as well as create a big environmental benefit. Hordes of lobbyists were seen walking around the capitol in a daze.


Fortunately some good bills did pass out of conference committee before the 6:00 pm deadline (see below). These bills are now going to the floor for a vote on Tuesday. All other bills -- like the paper/plastic bag fee and the barrel tax reallocation mentioned above -- will hold over until next year, barring some legislative sleight-of-hand tomorrow.  

In an effort to escape the frustration of the capitol, I found myself re-watching the "American President" on TV this past weekend. That movie has a great monologue where the fictional president Andrew Shepherd says "America isn't easy. America is advanced citizenship. You gotta want it bad, 'cause it's gonna put up a fight." I love this quote. We, as folks interested in seeing green legislation passed, need to avoid getting too discouraged and instead continue to advocate for the bills we support and believe in. We've got to want it bad. And if we don't succeed, we need to hold legislators accountable for the failure to pass popular, common-sense legislation. Or we'll find ourselves in this canoe again.

BILLS THAT PASSED CONFERENCE COMMITTEE:
  

Relating to Light Pollution (SB 1493 SD1 HD3 CD1)
  • Requires every new and replacement outdoor light fixtures to be fully shielded beginning on July 1, 2013, with certain exemptions. Specifies that replacement of existing roadway lighting may be partially shielded under certain conditions. 
Hand-pounded Poi (SB101 SD1 HD2 CD1)
  • Exempts the preparation of hand-pounded poi from certain Department of Health (DOH) requirements regarding food safety if certain conditions are met. Requires the DOH to adopt rules no later than December 31, 2011.
South Kona Wilderness Area (SB1154 SD2 HD1 CD1)
  • Establishes the south Kona wilderness area on the island of Hawaii to preserve vulnerable visual, natural, biological, and historical aspects of South Kona. 
On-Bill Financing (HB 1520 HD2 SD2 CD1)
  •  Directs the Public Utilities Commission (PUC) to investigate an On-bill Financing Program (Program) for residential electric utility customers to finance purchases of energy efficient or renewable energy devices and systems through their regular electric utility bills. Authorizes PUC to implement a Program by decision and order or by rules if the program is found to be viable.
Greenways and Trails; Smart Development (HB 1405 HD1 SD1 CD1)
  •  Requires the Office of Planning to establish a statewide system of greenways and trails.
Conservation and Resources Enforcement Special Fund (HB 1082 HD1 SD2 CD1)
  • Establishes the Conservation and Resources Enforcement Special Fund in the Department of Land and Natural Resources for the purpose of setting aside moneys to be used toward the protection of the State's natural, cultural, and historic resources. 
Public Utilities Commission (PUC); Renewable Energy (SB 1482 SD1 HD1 CD1)
  • Allows the PUC to consider the benefits of capital improvements for renewable energy and energy efficiency despite the short-term expense. Requires the PUC to consider the need to reduce the State's reliance on fossil fuels.
Photovoltaic-Ready New Residential Homes (SB181 HD1 CD1)
  • A substantially weaker version then the original, which simply required new homes to be "PV-ready." The weakened version creates a working group to study the feasibility of this bill.

 
BAD BILLS THAT PASSED CONFERENCE COMMITTEE:
 
 Renewable Energy; Agriculture Land; Solar Energy Facilities (SB 631 SD1 HD1 CD1)

  • Allows solar energy facilities to be built on ten percent of agricultural land classified as having "B" or "C" quality or up to twenty acres, which ever is lesser. While we love solar energy facilities, we're concerned this could increase the cost of an already limited supply of prime farmland and squeeze out farmers that grow food. More analysis should have occurred before passing this bill.
Special Management Areas (HB 117 HD2 SD2 CD1)
  • Increases the threshold between a "minor" and "major" permit from $125,000 to $500,000. Minor permits are rarely disclosed to the public in time for any meaningful discussion, thus potentially resulting in more projects built near the shoreline without public participation. 
  • Adds single-family homes for review under the coastal zone management act (yay!), but limits this addition to homes that are bigger then 7,500 square feet. That's such a big number that it's unlikely this new clause will ever be triggered.
Kakaako Makai Community Planning Advisory Council (HB 680 SD2 CD1)
  • Repeals the requirement that the Hawaii Community Development Authority consider recommendations by the Kakaako Makai Community Planning Advisory Council in developing, accepting, and implementing any plans for the Kakaako makai area.