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House Speaker Scott Saiki reasserted the Legislature’s role in setting state policy and holding the other branches of government accountable in his opening day remarks Wednesday at the Capitol.
“We are at a moment in history where we cannot just be stewards,” he told his colleagues and people who packed the gallery.
“This legislative session is a call to broader involvement and decisive action,” Saiki said. “We must be courageous activists because the issues facing our state are too urgent to wait.”
On the other side of the Capitol rotunda, Senate President Ron Kouchi delivered his own remarks to open the 2018 session, which runs through early May. He briefly addressed housing and homelessness — two top House priorities — but focused on education.
“It is only through education and creating opportunities for each and every child in this state that we give them the opportunity to close the income gap, to be able to reach for the stars and realize their dreams,” Kouchi said, noting the $150,000 included in the governor’s supplemental budget request to improve pre-school.
Too often, school meals are the only meals kids eat, Kouchi said, and lawmakers have been in talks with the Department of Agriculture to support public school lunch programs. Not only could this reinvigorate the farming and ranching industries, but students would receive fresh, locally grown school meals, he said.
He called the Department of Education, which serves 100,000 meals per day, “the largest restaurant in the state of Hawaii.”
Sen. Michele Kidani, the chamber’s vice president, said the Senate will consider making permanent a $400,000 teacher retention pilot program. Under the program, substitute teachers who can’t afford to take time off receive funding for classes that help them become fully certified as teachers.
Sen. Kalani English, majority leader, pointed to the chamber’s 17 “sustainable development goals,” which range from fighting poverty to addressing climate change. The list was adapted from United Nations goals.
Rep. Andria Tupola, the House minority leader, said the five-member Republican caucus wants to “find new ways to connect” with their colleagues and the public. She hopes the Legislature can livestream more of their hearings online so citizens can be more included in the process.
“We can’t keep doing the same thing,” she said. “We have to do something different.”
Leaders from both chambers talked about the false missile alert that sent some people into panic mode Saturday morning. It took the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency 38 long minutes to send a second text declaring the first alert a false alarm, and Gov. David Ige and his administration have been scrambling to quell public concern.
“Unfortunately, one need only look to the past weekend to see a glaring instance of the inability of government at various levels to manage major issues facing our state,” Saiki said.
“We rely on the executive branch to competently and efficiently implement our laws and to administer programs,” he said. “This begins with basic functions. Some of these functions must be carried out without mistakes because, when mistakes happen, the public loses confidence in all of us.”
Ige faces a tough re-election campaign against Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, who has at least tacit support from some leaders in the Legislature.
Asked how the false missile alert may affect his chances of securing a second four-year term, Ige said he plans to maintain his “focus on governing.” He also said that his administration shares the priorities of the House and Senate, particularly in addressing affordable housing and homelessness.
“It’s clear that everybody’s prepared to get to work,” Ige said. “We heard many of the same common themes. We all share the same goals and priorities.”
The governor said he’s preparing for a briefing Friday that lawmakers have called in response to the false missile alert. Ige and Vern Miyagi, Hawaii Emergency Management Agency administrator, will answer questions from a joint committee.
“We are not waiting for them,” Ige said, noting the changes that have already been put in place at the agency and the comprehensive review that is being undertaken. The employee who sent out the false alert has been reassigned and Brig. Gen. Kenneth Hara has been tapped to review the system.
Kouchi said the Senate is committed to making sure a false missile alert never happens again.
“We will continue to work with the administration to find out what we need to do for best practices, and how we can carry out our responsibility to ensure that each and every citizen and guest of this state is going to be safe,” he said. “And we need to ensure that we are getting you accurate information.”
Kouchi said most information lawmakers have about the mistake was obtained through news reports. While the agency’s budget is within the Legislature’s scope, he stressed lawmakers could only recommend consequences.
English told reporters that lawmakers have contacted cell phone networks and manufacturers to understand why only some phones were alerted. He expects more information to be available by Friday’s briefing.
As Kouchi’s opening remarks drew to a close, protesters could be heard outside marching to Iolani Palace, commemorating the 125th anniversary of the Kingdom of Hawaii’s overthrow. Kouchi said he purposefully kept his speech brief to avoid competing with the noise of demonstrators in the Capitol rotunda.
Native Hawaiians gathered outside to pound poi, dance hula and beat drums to commemorate the overthrow of the kingdom.
“For some people, this is still a Hawaiian nation,” said Kumu Ricky Bermudez, pounding poi made from strains of taro and ulu. Bermudez said he came to share Hawaiian traditions, culture and food with keiki and the public.
“That’s the power right there,” he said. “The power is taking care of the land.”
In one corner of the rotunda, the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement offered voter registration services. Members passed out signs and stickers that read: “I’m Hawaiian and I vote” and “Voting is my kuleana.”
“Our kingdom is not recognized right now,” said Michelle Kauhane, council president and CEO. “They (legislators) are making decisions with or without us.”
Ige issued a statement recognizing the special day in Hawaii history.
“A few months ago, we remembered Queen Liliuokalani, who put her people first, before money or power,” he said. “She chose the common good for a better collective existence. I believe we must follow her example as we move forward together as one people.