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2023 Mid-Session Policy Update

March marks the halfway point in Hawai‘i’s legislative session. March 9th marks when bills “cross over,” which means that the bills that passed all of their assigned committees in one chamber are “crossing over” to the other chamber to start the process again. At this point in the calendar, we still have several important measures that invest in people and healthy communities.

Tobacco Prevention & Control

The Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Hawai‘i has made it a priority to focus on uplifting the health of our communities, which includes ending the youth vaping epidemic in our state while supporting the cessation of adult tobacco users. The coalition has identified specific policies that will contribute to these goals: 1) Establishing comprehensive regulations on e-cigarettes, including closing the loophole of online sales to minors, tax parity with other tobacco products, and enacting a licensing and permitting structure; 2) Ending the sale of flavored tobacco products; and 3) Restoring county authority over the point of sale for tobacco products.

With broad support, advocates, the Youth Council, legislative champions, and a vast majority of the community, the comprehensive regulations, SB 975, passed the Senate Health and Human Services & Commerce and Consumer Protection Committees and moved to a joint hearing in the Senate Ways & Means and Judiciary Committees. These committees removed the section that restored power to the counties to regulate the point of sale of tobacco in their communities. This power will remain solely with the state.

 More good news is that a bill to end the sale of flavored tobacco products, HB 551, passed through the House and has moved to the Senate for additional hearings. This policy would restrict Big Tobacco’s ability to sell highly addictive nicotine by enticing customers, particularly youth, with fruit and candy-flavored tobacco products, which hook keiki and addict them for life. 

It is important to note that a bill to tax e-cigarettes equal to other tobacco products, HB 537, moved through the House and is now in the Senate awaiting hearings. And a bill that would restore power to the counties to regulate the sale of tobacco products, SB 1447, received its first-ever legislative hearings in the Senate and moved to the House for further hearings. 

Healthy Eating, Active Living

The statewide Obesity Prevention Task Force identified two priorities this session: 1) Expanding funding for the DA BUX SNAP incentive program with $3 million in state funds; 2) Ensuring that keiki to kūpuna can safely walk, bike, bus, or roll to all places through a more robust and equitable Safe Routes for People to Places program. 

The DA BUX program funding House Bill, HB 1248, enjoyed broad support through the House hearing process and moved to the Senate. The Senate Bill, SB 1259, never received a hearing. We are optimistic the House Bill will continue to receive support and be scheduled for hearings in the Senate. 

The Safe Routes bill, SB 1506, continues to move through the legislative process. This measure aims to establish equitable conceptualization of projects through an inclusive safe routes for people committee while streamlining the process for the counties to receive Federal money. A dedicated position is created in the bill to coordinate the projects and help build transparency and accountability. The measure includes a vital funding piece, which is necessary to  successfully move the work forward.

We have also been supporting other significant measures that will increase food access. 

Hawaii’s food banks may soon receive a much-needed boost from companion bills SB 460 and HB 314, which are advancing through both chambers with support. If enacted, the legislation would provide state funding to support the food bank system, which currently lacks such financing. The food banks have requested $3 million to aid their efforts in the next year.

The Senate strongly supported Farm to Food Bank, SB 430, a bill that allocates funds to local food banks to purchase locally-sourced food. The bill moved to the House for further review and discussion. A $5 million appropriation is the request to implement this program; the state budget must be balanced before a final amount is granted.

The House and Senate are working to ensure students have access to meals during the school day. HB 540 would make breakfast and lunch free for all public and charter school students, while SB 154 offers lunch subsidies for public school students who do not qualify for free lunch. Students receiving meals at school seems to be a priority for most legislators. The bills received strong support, and the House bill passed with only two opposing votes from House Republicans.

Oral Health

The Hawai’i Oral Health Coalition’s (HOHC) 2023 policy priority, SB 162, to allow qualified candidates from Canada to obtain temporary and community service dental licenses, has passed all Senate Committees and crossed to the House for further consideration. This meaningful policy addresses the persistent need to increase access to oral health care. 

Additionally, HOHC strongly supports HB 617, which creates an oral health task force and establishes two dedicated oral health positions in the Department of Health. This measure passed all House Committees and is in the Senate for further consideration. This measure is critical to assessing the oral health landscape in Hawai‘i and developing recommendations to improve care systems that support the recent reinstatement of dental coverage for adults with Medicaid. 

Farm to School

The Hawai’i Farm to School Hui’s priority was to fund a P-20 Agriculture Education Coordinator position within the University of Hawai‘i College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources (UH CTAHR). Unfortunately, HB 310 and SB 663 did not receive a hearing from the Finance Committee or the Ways & Means Committee, respectively.

However, the Hui supports the following bills, which continue through the process: HB 247, which aligns Farm to School (Act 175) and Farm to State (Act 176) procurement goals and expands annual reporting requirements; HB 249, which establishes the Hawaiʻi child nutrition programs agency and a grant program to support initiatives in public schools; and HB 250, which requires the Department of Education to establish procurement rules that incorporate a geographic preference for unprocessed locally-grown and locally-raised food products.

 Alcohol Policy

For several years, Hawai‘i Alcohol Policy Alliance (HIAPA) has worked to lower the legal blood alcohol concentration (BAC) for operating a vehicle from 0.08 to 0.05. SB 160, passed the Senate and is awaiting a House hearing. Lowering the BAC helps to change behaviors and protect our communities. HIAPA also supports SB 715, which designates September as Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder Month to increase educational outreach and raise awareness of this disorder. 

What happens next for these and other measures? The bills will eventually cross back over to their original chamber, and that originating chamber will consider any amendments made. If they agree to the changes, the bill goes to the Governor’s desk. If there is disagreement, there are further meetings where House and Senate members work to agree on amendments and then send the bill to the governor. We still have a ways to go, but we can see the light at the end of the tunnel. 

It is still possible to get involved! Please visit hiphi.org to see the legislative tracker, which provides the complete list of public health bills being tracked this year. You can also sign up for our action alerts to receive hearing notifications and talking points and to learn more about making your voice heard at the State Capitol.

Peggy Mierzwa

Peggy Mierzwa

Policy & Advocacy Director
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