Sometimes an issue under the spotlight can take on a life of its own — one that state lawmakers very much did not intend.

Such was the case this week with state Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland’s suggestion that we consider a return to traditional Hawaiian homes as an inexpensive and environmentally sound way to help with the affordable housing crisis.

Chun Oakland’s idea morphed into headlines shouting about grass or thatched huts to help the homeless. The stories ran locally as well as in news outlets across the country, on Fox News and the now-defunct Al Jazeera America.

On Tuesday the senator, a Democrat long known for her support for those most in need, clarified that the hale idea is just part of a range of possibilities. They are “broad and out-of-the-box” potential solutions for housing and homelessness, she said.

House Majority Leader Scott Saiki, pictured here at center with House Speaker Joe Souki, left, and Judiciary Chair Karl Rhoads.

House Majority Leader Scott Saiki, middle, with House Speaker Joe Souki, left, and Judiciary Chair Karl Rhoads.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

The spate of bad press over the unorthodox approach might seem to distract from the seriousness of homelessness and affordable housing in Hawaii. But those are the issues that are attracting the most attention from businesses, community groups and the media.

No surprise, then, that they also top the list of priorities for the 2016 Hawaii legislative session, which officially opens Jan. 20 but in essence has already begun.

“We really want to target the chronically homeless, and that will require intensifying services and funding,” said Rep. Scott Saiki, the majority leader in the House of Representative. “But that is a population that needs to be addressed.”

Ron Kouchi, the Senate president, agrees.

“One of the areas we are certainly in agreement on is to deal with both homelessness and affordable housing,” Kouchi said. “We need to try and get shelters and to have housing units available so that social services can help the transition into full-time housing.”

Tough Questions On Finances

Kouchi said the Senate’s approach may look at revisiting some budget cuts made during economic downturns to programs for mental health services and other nonprofit outreach efforts that are critical to the homeless-housing issue.

The House’s proposals, said Saiki, could include more funding for the state’s low-income housing program, which has hundreds of empty units awaiting repair, and more financial support for the state’s rental housing program.

Senate President Ron Kouchi.

Senate President Ron Kouchi.

Pf Bentley/Civil Beat

But the Democratic leaders cautioned that the Legislature would not simply throw more money at the problems. Both said their respective chambers would look for ways to make sure that the state is properly tracking how it takes in revenue, and that spending is not being abused.

The scrutiny has already been seen in joint briefings by the money committees in both chambers — lengthy, sometimes grueling meetings that started Jan. 4. Agency heads and representatives have faced tough questions from Jill Tokuda of Senate Ways and Means and Sylvia Luke of House Finance, who are seeking greater oversight and fiscal accountability.

Saiki, for example, said that if the Legislature were to provide a huge amount of money to the Rental Housing Trust Fund, there are worries about whether it would be spent in a timely manner. Saiki said it takes time for agencies — in this case, the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corporation, which manages the rental fund — to make things happen.

Other Money Demands

Saiki’s point is that his colleagues don’t want to dole out money without ensuring that the spending is tailored to specific needs, targeted and used in an appropriate fashion. One idea is to look at how contracts for government services are awarded and administered (such as for homeless shelters), something that the Ige administration has also looked into.

Kouchi warns of other fiscal concerns creating uncertainty at the Capitol.

While the Hawaii Council of Revenues’ recent slight increase in its forecast for economic growth means the state has another $40 million, legal challenges may eat that up quickly. Kouchi mentioned the United Public Workers complaint about the privatization of the three state hospitals on Maui and a First Circuit Court decision ordering the Legislature to pay tens of millions of dollars to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.

And, as always, there will be other financial demands on lawmakers.

Minority Leader Beth Fukumoto Chang.

House Minority Leader Beth Fukumoto Chang.

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

Kouchi mentioned “heat abatement” (air conditioning) and Internet connectivity at public schools, as well as pre-kindergarten — something Kouchi said he hoped to hear more about from Gov. David Ige.

Saiki brought up the proposed reconstruction of the Hawaii State Hospital.

Both leaders also want to know how Ige’s tax modernization effort is working out, namely, whether the Department of Taxation can better account for revenues and explain just how much general excise tax exemptions cost the state.

Saiki cited a tax break that Hawaiian Airlines has been enjoying for almost 20 years in its leasing of jets.

The House and Senate are scheduled to caucus separately this week, when more detailed plans will emerge. Kouchi said he expects the Senate to release a statement outlining more about its priorities Friday. That same afternoon, Saiki, Luke and House Speaker Joe Souki are expected to meet with the media to elaborate on their plans.

Souki and Kouchi, meanwhile, will deliver speeches on opening day, in advance of the governor’s State of the State address Jan. 25. There are also deadlines this month for the introduction of bills by lawmakers, the administration and other parties.

A GET Increase?

Thus far the governor — himself a former Ways and Means chair — has signaled that he, too, wants to make fiscal accountability a major goal. He has also already indicated continued support for addressing housing and homelessness.

Ige’s supplemental budget calls for $75 million for the rental fund and $31 million for state public housing, which is coordinated through the Hawaii Public Housing Authority.

Those numbers could be adjusted by the money committees. But the Housing Authority needs an estimated $820 million for repairs over the next 10 years.

Senator Sam Slom meeting, greeting and answering questions about the Capitol and his duties as a legislator.

Sen. Sam Slom answering questions about the Capitol and his duties as a legislator.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Meanwhile, the $75 million for the Rental Housing Trust Fund would go toward projects awarded to developers in 2017 to be completed by 2019 and early 2020, resulting in some 600 additional units. But, as Civil Beat has reported, a 2014 analysis by HHFDC estimated that more than 20,000 rental units are needed in the state by 2020.

The Democrats may be able to count on some support from the seven Republicans in the House and the single GOP senator. Sen. Sam Slom and Minority Leader Rep. Beth Fukumoto Chang say housing and homelessness, as well as fiscal accountably, are their top priorities, too.

“These are issues that we will able to unite around on our caucus as well as the whole Legislature,” said Fukumoto Chang. “We’re a very diverse group, but that is definitely an area of agreement. We need to do something more to tackle homeless and the housing shortage.”

Slom said there is consensus that there is a lack of available and affordable housing, and that the homeless represent a range of people, including the mentally ill, veterans, criminals and drug addicts but also the working poor. High taxes, high fees and over-regulation are also factors, and Slom has argued repeatedly that the state has not done enough to make Hawaii a place where small businesses can thrive.

The senator expressed skepticism that all the rhetoric about housing and homelessness would ultimately amount to much, pointing out that 2016 is an election year.

“I predict that come May 5, nothing we will have done will be substantial,” he said, referring to the last day of the session.

Slom also predicted that a proposal from the Hawaii State Teachers Association to increase the general excise tax would go nowhere, as well as a plan from Democrat Roz Baker, the senator who is seeking a small increase in the GET to pay for a long-term care bill for seniors.

Sen. Rosalyn Baker.

Sen. Rosalyn Baker.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

In Baker’s legislation, the additional revenue would go into a fund that would allow every person who files a Hawaii state income tax for 10 years to receive $70 a day for a year. Much of the tax would be paid by visitors to the state.

Baker expressed optimism that there is growing support for an issue that affects everyone — growing old and needing care.

“Caregiving is really taking a toll,” she said. “It’s very draining, and it has a ripple effect. Providing some respite a couple times a week for bathing (or other services), that could go a long way.”

Baker added, “Most of Hawaii’s elders don’t want to go into a long-term care facility, even if we had enough beds to take care of everyone. We felt that, if we could provide something that every resident paid into, a fund that can’t be raided and a system guided by a board of trustees and with safeguards, it would be fair to residents.”

If the GET increase for long-term care doesn’t happen this session, Baker said at least there would be a conversation started that could gain momentum later.

“None of us are getting younger,” she said.

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