Wednesday, February 13, 2002

Legislature 2002

GOP fighting pitched battle
over Hurricane Relief

By Pat Omandam

State House Republicans say they will not give up their efforts this session to return money to those who paid into the Hawaii Hurricane Relief Fund.

Moreover, they say, their intentions are sincere and not politically motivated in this election year, as Gov. Ben Cayetano contended yesterday.

The governor said the House GOP knows the state's financial situation and the history of the Hurricane Relief Fund and has acted irresponsibly by convincing thousands of homeowners they are entitled to a refund from the $213 million in the fund. The fund was set up in 1992 to provide affordable hurricane insurance to homeowners after private insurance companies stopped writing hurricane coverage following Hurricane Iniki earlier that year.

"It is one of the most irresponsible and politically charged sessions that I have witnessed in the many years I have served in public office," Cayetano said.

But House Minority Floor Leader Charles Djou (R, Kaneohe) disagreed.

"I think the governor might think this is a cynical, political move, but we sincerely believe that this money doesn't belong to us. It doesn't belong to the Legislature. It belongs to the people," he said. "It should be returned to the people, and it has also the collateral benefit to help stimulate our economy."

Nevertheless, Republicans failed to gain enough support from Democrats yesterday to approve a bill that would have returned most of the money to homeowners. The minority even offered up an amendment to the bill, HB 865, but it was not enough to convince Democrats to support it.

State Rep. Colleen Meyer (R, Laie) said the amendment would have returned about $170 million to homeowners and would have had a great impact on the economy.

Rep. Joe Gomes (R, Waimanalo) described the millions in the fund as a surplus that needs to be returned to policyholders.

"We'll find a way to do it because it is the right thing to do," he said.

Rep. Ed Case, the Manoa Democrat planning to run for governor, supported the amendment because it ensures the money is not transferred to the state General Fund, as Cayetano has proposed to offset a budget shortfall of over $300 million in the current fiscal year.

But most House Democrats disagreed with the amendment and the bill.

House Majority Leader Marcus Oshiro said members should wait until the House Finance Committee decides on the fate of several bills dealing with the fund, one of which is similar to the bill debated yesterday.

House Consumer Protection Chairman Kenneth Hiraki (D, Kakaako) said it would be too difficult to process refunds. With about 200,000 former policyholders and nearly a million records to sort through, it is a nearly impossible task, he said.

"Through the course of hearings and dialogue with the agencies involved, it became very clear that due to the missing or difficult-to-ascertain records, there's no fair or perhaps even legal way of returning these funds," he said.

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