AG Connors proposes bills for managing emergencies

  • Connors

Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors told lawmakers Thursday she’s proposing a set of bills aimed at a smoother transition into emergency mode and better tracking of quarantined individuals during pandemics.

“We’ve had a lot of conversations in the last few months on the things that can be improved upon,” Connors told the Senate Special Committee on COVID-19.

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One bill, Connors said, would “create additional authority for the director of the Department of Health to declare a public health emergency … based on those health criteria he or she sees.”

The current state of emergency was declared by Gov. David Ige and the mayors of the individual counties, including Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim, and the governor would also retain the authority under the law to declare a pandemic emergency, as would Hawaii Emergency Management Agency.

Connors told the legislators that the COVID-19 pandemic demonstrates the need to be prepared and to be flexible.

According to Connors, the bill would “automatically expire after 90 days,” but could be extended by the health director as needed.

Connors added that the bill would amend state law to “codify the screening process.”

“We all know that traveling is going to be different,” she said, adding the screening now done on interisland passengers would be studied and improvements will be made in the process for future pandemics.

According to Connors, the mandatory new travel and health form interisland travelers are now required to fill out “is different from any form that we’ve seen before.”

“It asks a set of health questions; it also asks a set of COVID-related questions — and, very importantly, it gets the contact information of the persons traveling,” she said. “If someone falls ill … the Department of Health needs to be able to contact you and needs to be able to do all the different things related to contact tracing.”

Connors is requesting a special fund be set up to pay for screening of visitors and returning residents through “a reallocation of the transient accommodation tax,” or TAT, also known as the hotel room tax.

State Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, the committee chairman, said the funding could come from money currently used to market the islands to visitors through the Hawaii Tourism Authority.

“The theory is, if we’re not on this paradigm of trying to reach 10 million or 11 million or 12 million visitors, and we’re trying to reach only 6 million visitors, then they won’t need so much marketing money, so we could take some from their marketing budget … ,” Dela Cruz said. “Granted, the money has to be specific to a higher-spending visitor … . HTA has to be clear that it’s not about volume of visitors anymore. It has to be quality visitors.”

Another proposed measure is aimed at giving counties the power to crack down on online marketing of illegal short-term vacation rentals.

“It gives the ability to the counties … to establish a registry of lawfully authorized or permitted short-term rentals. It provides them the authority to require that any rental operator list the complete physical address, including the unit number and tax map key,” Connors said. “It gives the counties the authority to prohibit hosting platforms from completing booking transactions for any rental that’s not on the registry. It also provides the counties the authority to prohibit hosting platforms from collecting or receiving a fee for facilitating or providing services that are ancillary to a short-term rental.

“It gives the counties subpoena power, which is something that could also assist in their ability to engage in investigations.”

A third legislative proposal is “related to the Young Brothers matter,” Connors told the committee. The bill would allow the Public Utilities Commission to appoint a receiver for barge shippers.

Young Brothers, which has a monopoly on interisland barge shipping, has a request for a 34% rate increase before the PUC. It also requested $25 million in money the state received from the federal government from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act.

“It allows the receiver to get access to records, to be able (to) really see what the conditions that’s creating the concerns are and to evaluate it in terms of what the PUC should do in response,” Connors said. “And then the second thing it does is, it deletes a number of those requirements which led to the monopolistic situation that we have here now that made it very difficult (for other shippers) to enter the market.”

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The Legislature reconvenes Monday.

Email John Burnett at jburnett@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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