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The Hawaii Legislature convened its 30th biennial session Wednesday, and its leaders wasted no time proclaiming that a top priority would be increasing the state’s $10.10 per hour minimum wage.
Even minority Republicans are behind the idea in the Democrat-controlled Legislature. It is part of a larger recognition of how the islands are becoming unaffordable for many residents.
House Speaker Scott Saiki spoke of “serious challenges” facing the state, primarily economic in nature.
“As we already know, regular people are having an increasingly difficult time making ends meet and the divide between those with and without resources is growing,” he said.
In the face of high housing, transportation and food costs, the state has experienced two consecutive years of population loss.
Gov. David Ige said in a press conference after the Legislature convened that he will work with lawmakers to draft a proposal to raise the minimum wage while also addressing concerns of small businesses.
Ige said he’d look at $15 an hour, but added that “there will be a lot of conversation about different levels.”
Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English said that several ideas are being thrown around, and that he’s already seen 10 to 15 bills addressing wage increases.
Saiki said the House would re-examine “wage disparity,” by which he means the state’s minimum wage. He said House leaders would ensure that monies appropriated last session — especially $200 million in cash and $300 million in tax credits to subsidize development of affordable rental housing units and $30 million to develop transitional units for homeless people — are spent wisely.
Saiki also stressed the House’s role as an oversight body, “an important check on its fellow branches of government.”
The speaker said his chamber would “reaffirm the Legislature’s policymaking role” over the judicial and executive branches. Saiki said that at times the Legislature has “abrogated this role” in the past.
Saiki said his members would also work hard to listen to citizens when crafting policy and also be prepared to compromise.
“It is easy to be a liberal. It is easy to be a progressive. It is easy to be a conservative,” he said. “But it is not easy to be a problem-solver when the problem is complicated and has no real answer.”
House Minority Leader Gene Ward said Republicans support an increase in the minimum wage “but it should be reasonable — repeat, reasonable.”
Ward said the GOP would also support Finance Chair Sylvia Luke’s proposal to use zero-based budgeting in drawing up the state spending plan. Kauai and the Big Island also continue to need support in the wake of last year’s flooding and volcanic eruption, he said.
The House GOP package will emphasize cost-of-living measures to help residents stay in Hawaii and to draw former residents back from the mainland.
“For too long, we have been exporting our youth and the brains of the next generation,” said Ward. “This program will lure them home with a no-down-payment option to buy a home or condo that will be guaranteed by a newly created “REIT Revolving Fund.”
Real estate investment trusts are long-standing income tax breaks for some of the largest real estate companies operating in Hawaii.
“Yes, it’s about time these multi-billion-dollar corporations pay their fair share,” Ward said.
Senate President Ron Kouchi said his “greatest passion was to create a Hawaii where each and every one one of our children could come home.”
Kouchi told a story of how both his sons came back from mainland colleges to work in Hawaii.
“I think our focus is on education and empowering our kids,” he said in a press conference following the Senate session.
Senate Vice President Michelle Kidani said that last year’s constitutional amendment question — which would have asked voters if property taxes could be used to fund schools — brought new focus to the issue of funding for schools. It was opposed by county governments and ultimately invalidated by the Supreme Court.
“I’m sorry the counties felt that it was not in their best interest to help fund education,” Kidani said, adding that the state and counties will need to work together to find more education money.
Kouchi said he will work with Ige on a bill that would collect money from currently illegal vacation rentals to fund public education.
He also reaffirmed Senate support for disaster relief on the Big Island. Sections of the Puna district were devastated by Kilauea volcano last year.
Kouchi said his chamber was looking forward to discussing a minimum wage increase and the possibility of legalizing recreational use of cannabis for adults.
The Senate president also addressed two recent election challenges, one to GOP Sen. Kurt Fevella (which has been dismissed) and the ongoing contesting of Trevor Ozawa’s re-election to the Honolulu City Council.
He said the state should move to a statewide all-mail voting system and said the Senate must revise Hawaii’s election laws, which he called out-of-date.
“We need to give clear direction to courts about what that process should be,” he said regarding election challenges.
Senate leaders said that a bill proposing a statewide, all-mail voting system is likely to pass their chamber. Kouchi said their top priority in regards to voting is getting more participation.
Fevella, the lone Republican senator, said, “We’re not like the mainland. We’re not like Washington. We’re one family. One ohana. We agree to disagree.”
But, instead of an across-the-board minimum wage increase, Fevella would like to pilot wage increases with government workers first. But he joined the Senate president in support of collecting taxes from illegal vacation rentals.
Fevella also supports creating an independent airport authority or corporation to manage the state’s airports, rather than continuing to have the Department of Transportation run them.
Among the dignataries in the audience were Ige, Lt. Gov. Josh Green, Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald and all four county mayors.
The day marked the swearing in of a freshman class, including Fevella, and more than a half dozen new House representatives. Saiki called it one of the largest and most diverse freshmen classes in recent memory.
“This group represents a new generation of political leaders,” he said.
In addition to the usual speeches, oli, pledges, songs and invocations, musical entertainment featured Henry Kapono and Friends.
There was also protest, also not an uncommon occurrence on Opening Day.
An Aloha Aina Ma Uka to Ma Kai rally was held in the rotunda. Speeches came from farmers, fishermen and “Protectors of Ka Pae Aina O Hawaii.”
The focus was on protecting the state’s natural and cultural resources, sacred places and public lands.
Read Civil Beat’s recent reporting on the 2019 Legislature:
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