KAILUA-KONA — It’s crunch time in the Capitol as bills inch closer to becoming laws.
A handful of lawmakers took some time Wednesday to return to Hawaii Island for a Community Forums event and talk story on a few measures of note in the 2019 legislative session, both those that look promising and those that have fallen short.
Perhaps the most universal legislative disappointment to the evening’s panelists, which included two physicians, was the failure of a bill to ban flavored tobacco products. The measure was geared at the e-cigarette industry, commonly referred to as the vaping industry, which attracts youthful users in part by marketing candy-flavored nicotine products.
Hawaii would have been the first state in the nation to ban flavored vape products, which panelists at Wednesday’s forum said contain a higher nicotine concentration than cigarettes.
“It’s just short of criminal for the tobacco companies, many of whom acquired the vaping companies, to continue to market to children,” said Lt. Gov. Josh Green, formerly a state senator representing Kona and Ka’u in the Legislature. “We’ve seen a gigantic surge in vaping among adolescents.”
A 2017 study by the Hawaii Department of Health found that 26 percent of high school students in the state vaped, while 16 percent of middle schoolers used the products. The practice has been tied to developmental problems and nicotine addiction, which Green believes will manifest as a resurgence in cigarette smoking as younger generations grow into adulthood.
Senate Bill 1009 SD2 HD2, the measure in question, garnered widespread legislative support and made it all the way to the House Committee on Finance, one of its last hurdles prior to conference committee or being sent straight to Gov. David Ige for a signature. But once there, committee chairwoman Rep. Sylvia Luke scrapped the bill by way of a deferment.
Instead, the committee passed a measure to increase fines on youth caught vaping as well as hike taxes on vaping products.
Rep. David Tarnas, (D-North Kona, South Kohala, North Kohala) said he was both surprised and disappointed by the decision.
“This is not over,” he said. “Maybe it is this session, but it’s still an issue we have to address because the health issues are very plain and very obvious.”
Rep. Richard Creagan (D-Kona, Ka‘u) took it a step further, questioning why the state continues to sell any tobacco products, including cigarettes.
Citing numbers that indicate tobacco use is linked to a quarter of all cases of sudden infant death syndrome, Creagan said future legislation from his desk will focus on more than just vaping in an attempt to protect pregnant women and their children.
“My push is going to be banning vaping and combustible cigarettes for anyone up to 40,” he said. “We’re just trying to protect people by making it harder for them to buy (tobacco).”
One of the more polarizing measures panelists said has a good chance to become law is House Bill 1191 HD1 SD2, which would raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour in 2020 and by $1 per year until it hits $15 an hour in 2023.
West Hawaii’s business community has been bullish in its opposition of the hike, noting it could result in layoffs or reduced hours for employees to offset the extra financial burden. Roughly 60 percent of the Kona-Kohala Chamber of Commerce membership is comprised of small businesses with 10 or fewer employees — businesses a minimum wage increase would impact most.
Rep. Nicole Lowen (D-North Kona) said that while sympathetic to both sides of the issue, she supports the bill to raise wages based on the numbers.
“Every year, arguments are made that it’s going to affect jobs and put people out of business, but usually the research and the numbers and the data after the fact show that that’s not a widespread issue, as long as we’re not jumping too far ahead,” Lowen said.
One of the primary hardships businesses face is the cost of health care. To mitigate that, the increase is accompanied by a stipulation that the minimum wage would be lower for those employees who work more than 20 hours weekly — the cutoff at which employers must offer health care coverage by law.
The hike would also be implemented slowly, jumping from $10.10 per hour to $12 next year, then using a tiered system to phase pay increases in methodically.
“Our state is such an expensive state, and this is still not a living wage,” Creagan said. “(But) it’s a significant improvement.”
Health care in Hawaii
Green, Creagan and Lowen have spent years advocating for a new teaching hospital in West Hawaii. The first step in that direction, a $500,000 allocation for a feasibility study, was taken back this year when the funds lapsed.
Creagan said it’s unclear why the Hawaii Health Systems Corporation refused to use the money the Legislature appropriated.
“Maybe they just didn’t like our approach,” he speculated. “The new approach is to get money specifically to the (John A. Burns School of Medicine).”
In the meantime, Kona Community Hospital has taken to using outside facilities as it has no capacity to expand. KCH owns Alii Health where orthopedists now conduct operations like joint replacement surgeries on Hawaii Island.
But long-term, Creagan said, a teaching hospital will be required. Lowen agreed, but noted it will be a multi-year process due to a likely exorbitant price tag.
It’s not only a facility shortage plaguing Hawaii’s health care system, it’s a shortage of personnel. Green highlighted the issue, noting neighbor islands are short of health care providers to the tune of 40 percent across all disciplines.
To address that, Green’s office has struck a partnership with the University of Hawaii at Manoa and the John A. Burns School of Medicine, as well as with private banks.
The goal is to create a one-stop website for medical professionals and to entice them through a variety of incentives to practice in Hawaii. Those incentives include student-loan forgiveness, relocation funds and home loans at low interest rates for those willing to commit to a minimum tenure of medical service in the state.
Green said the space will also be used for one-on-one recruiting, including his own efforts. The debugging process is slated for July and Green is hopeful to announce the program statewide in early September.