Hawaii lawmakers thumped the gavels to open the 2020 session of the state Legislature Wednesday with an unusually detailed plan for the laws they plan to pass this year, and with a large demonstration by Hawaiian activists rumbling in the background.
The opening floor sessions in both the state House and Senate were brief and subdued, in contrast to sometimes noisy and enthusiastic hula and chant by up to 1,000 Hawaiian demonstrators and their supporters who gathered outside in the Capitol courtyard.
Lawmakers were eager to talk about a blueprint for the session that was unveiled Tuesday composed of four bills that lawmakers say will provide relief for poor and working families. The plan involves steps such as modestly increasing the state minimum wage and developing 17,000 affordable homes on state land during the next five years.
Senate President Ron Kouchi told his colleagues and an audience in the crowded Senate gallery Wednesday that lawmakers announced those “bold initiatives” in the hope it would create a more transparent process. Lawmakers have been criticized in the past for backroom dealing, but “we are hoping to create a process that will engage our community,” he said.
“We are working hard to address the concerns of the working men and women of Hawaii. We are working hard to address the issues about Hawaii not being affordable, and losing our most valuable asset — our people — because they cannot afford to live here,” Kouchi said.
House Speaker Scott Saiki echoed those concerns in his opening speech, telling listeners that “Many people cannot make it in Hawaii. The questions before us are, can we keep up? Can our state government keep up? Can our working families keep up? So far, the experiences of our families and the statistics tell us no. As a community, we are at best treading water. At worst, we are drowning.”
At a news conference after the floor session, Saiki said the common thread of all the majority package measures is the state’s skyrocketing cost of living, and the inability of a growing number of Hawaii households to cope with it.
Every Hawaii family can point to at least one person who’s left the state for better economic opportunities elsewhere, said Saiki, (D, Downtown-Kakaako- McCully). “We need to make it possible for our family members and the next generation to stay home,” he said.
The most specific, immediate proposals in the Democrats’ package would increase the state minimum wage in a series of steps to $13 an hour by 2024, and create a refundable state earned income tax credit for lower-income working families. Lawmakers also proposed increasing the state’s food excise tax credit to $150, and making it available to all families making less than $50,000.
Those initiatives would cost the state about $75 million a year to implement, and supporters say it would put more money directly into the pockets of the people who need it most.
Gov. David Ige said Wednesday that while he needs to know more about some components of the package floated by lawmakers, he fully supports the relatively straightforward minimum wage and tax credit proposals.
When asked if he would sign those pieces of the package into law if they were on his desk today, Ige replied “Absolutely.”
The outlook is not quite as clear for the Democrats’ ambitious affordable housing proposals, or the plan to provide new or expanded preschool facilities for some 20,000 3- and 4-year-olds across the state.
Lawmakers want to commit $200 million to build infrastructure such as utilities and roads on state land along the West Oahu end of the city’s rail line to speed development of affordable leasehold condominiums on that land. Another $75 million would be invested in developing similar infrastructure on state-owned land on the neighbor islands for affordable housing.
House and Senate Democrats also pitched a “Learning to Grow” initiative that would use public funds to increase the capacity of existing private preschools, and develop entirely new facilities where they are needed. That would include planting preschools in state facilities such as Aloha Stadium, the Hawai‘i Convention Center and each of the university campuses.
When asked about those ideas, Ige replied, “I think there’s a lot of details that have to be worked through. Obviously, it impacts the financial plan.” He added that “we are definitely going to be looking at that and see what the impact would be and how we would make adjustments.”
However, Ige said he supports the housing and preschool goals set by lawmakers in the package, and noted those plans are consistent with proposals offered up by his own administration in previous sessions.
In the House, a cooperative tone was struck early on at Wednesday’s session when House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke (D, Punchbowl-Pauoa-Nuuanu) asked colleague Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R, Kailua-Kaneohe) to stand and be recognized for her 30 years representing Windward Oahu residents.
Thielen, who announced several weeks ago that she is not seeking reelection, was given a standing ovation and cheers not only by colleagues but members of the public sitting in the gallery.
“The reason I wanted to recognize her today as opposed to the end of session is because we have all these people here to celebrate opening day and I wanted to make sure they all know what a great person she has been and thank her for her years of service with the state,” Luke said.
Saiki, speaking to reporters after the session, pointed to statistics showing out-migration has exceeded in-migration in Hawaii for three consecutive years and that 12,000 residents have left its shores since 2016.
“This is something that we take very seriously,” Saiki said. “It bothers the members of our body to see this happening under our watch.”
He blamed income inequality, lack of affordable child care and early learning opportunities and inadequate affordable housing as the main culprits.
House Minority Leader Gene Ward (R, Hawaii Kai-Kalama Valley), during his opening remarks, said many of the Democrats’ priorities are similar to those in his party.
“The minority believes that the session is about one thing — and that’s fighting to improve the lives of the people of Hawaii just like you said, Mr. Speaker,” Ward said, acknowledging Saiki and his remarks.
From the Republican perspective, that’s achieved by prioritizing health, safety and the economics of those who want to stay in Hawaii, he said. HPD’s shortage of more than 300 patrol officers can be remedied by offering more benefits and incentives to potential recruits.
Ward cited vaping as the top health issue and the high cost of groceries as the top economic concern for Hawaii residents. “Eating in Hawaii, living in Hawaii has become increasingly difficult,” he said. “You’ve got to grow the economy.”
Luke, at the press conference, said she wants to know why the Ige administration has been slow to spend $30 million it appropriated two years for ohana zones to help combat homelessness through the offering of more “wrap-around” services outside of actual housing.
And even with the $7 million that has been spent, “right now that’s not really happening,” Luke said. “The Department of Human Services and the homeless coordinator (Scott Morishige), along with the counties, are using some of the ohana zone money for different services as opposed to providing the transport of individuals who are cleared from parks and streets and around schools to safe areas where they can provide services.”