- Associated Press - Thursday, May 4, 2017

HONOLULU (AP) - The Hawaii Legislature concluded with a sudden change in leadership in the state House of Representatives, ending a session marked by a failure to pass a major bill to fund Honolulu’s troubled rail transit project and the death of many other significant proposals.

Hawaii Rep. Scott Saiki was elected speaker Thursday after Rep. Joseph Souki stepped down as part of a dramatic close to the 2017 legislative session.

Souki sent a resignation letter to fellow lawmakers saying he was disappointed the Legislature failed to pass a bill that would allow physicians to help terminally ill patients end their own lives, and he said he regrets the House and Senate could not agree on how to fund Honolulu’s troubled rail transit system.

Souki’s resignation came after a majority of House members requested he step down, Saiki said. Souki, who was absent from the floor session Thursday, will continue as a legislator.

“It was a decision that was not made easily,” Saiki said after he was elected speaker. “I think that the general feeling is that it was time for new leadership in the House.”

Thursday was the final day of the legislative session, and many bills died at the last minute as lawmakers focused on finding a way to continue funding the planned Honolulu rail project. The price tag for rail has ballooned to an estimated $10 billion with financing costs and is facing a shortfall estimated from $1.4 billion to $3 billion.

Because the House and Senate could not reach agreement on the rail finance bill, lawmakers may be called back for a special session, Senate President Ronald Kouchi said.

Saiki said the House is not yet ready to commit to a special session.

“Emotions have run very high on the rail issue,” Saiki said. “Our position is that we need a cooling off period before the House and Senate get together to try to resolve this.”

Disagreements over rail funding held up a number of other bills in the final days of the session. Among the bills that died was a proposal to set a clean transportation goal to use 100 percent renewable fuels by 2045. Bills that sought financial incentives for installing renewable energy storage systems also failed.

A bill to ban sunscreens that contain oxybenzone which may harm coral reefs also languished, along with a proposal to allow vacation rental listing companies like Airbnb to collect taxes.

Efforts to change the way the commercial fishing industry operates after an investigation by The Associated Press found foreign fishermen confined to boats, living in subpar conditions or not paid as promised collapsed after heavy lobbying from the fishing industry.

Proposals to require presidential candidates to reveal their tax returns in order to get on the Hawaii ballot died after the attorney general raised concerns about potential lawsuits.

Among the bills that survived was one that would allow pharmacists to prescribe birth control and another to limit opioid prescriptions. A bill to criminalize trespassing on state lands, which was opposed by some homeless advocates, also survived.

In a victory for low-income working families, lawmakers passed a bill to create an earned income tax credit. And a proposal to allow people to live in tiny homes on agricultural land survived.

Some bills that survived were substantially changed. A bill that sought to incorporate the federal Affordable Care Act - former President Barack Obama’s signature health care overhaul - into state law survived, but it was changed to create a working group that will study the issue. It originally sought to prohibit insurers from denying coverage based on pre-existing conditions and to require insurers to cover 10 essential benefits, among other things.

“We wanted at the end of the day to make sure we could look at what Congress did and react appropriately,” said Rep. Della Au Bellati.

A push to increase oversight of state-licensed child care facilities after several children died while in day care saw mixed results. A bill to require child care operators to carry liability insurance passed, despite concern that the requirement could reduce the number of child care providers, but a proposal to require the state to post inspection reports of child care facilities online died at the end of the session.

Mayors asked Gov. David Ige to extend the legislative session to find a rail funding solution Wednesday, but Ige said that would be a waste of time at this juncture because lawmakers were too far apart.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC.

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