During the 2019 legislative session, residents from across Hawaii engaged in the legislative process, debating the question of whether or not to increase Hawaii’s minimum wage.

Many, already struggling to make ends meet, took off from work, arranged childcare and traveled to the State Capitol from the neighbor islands.

Thousands of people submitted testimony, committee hearings were held, and legislators voted publicly on multiple occasions — overwhelmingly in support. From that process, emerged House Bill 1191 HD1 SD2, proposing to increase Hawaii’s minimum wage to a phased-in $15 per hour, from its existing $10.10 per hour.

Hope and optimism among advocates was running high as the legislative session neared its conclusion and the conference committee was convened.

Legislators, opponents and proponents gather to testify regarding House BIll 321. 7 feb 2015. photograph by Cory Lum/Civil Beat

State lawmakers could act on minimum wage legislation early in the 2020 session.

Then, on April 26, those hopes were dashed when it was announced that an agreement between the House and Senate could not be reached. Advocates were told, “Come back next year, submit another bill and try again” — sorry, not sorry.

Article III, Section 15 of the Hawaii Constitution states in part:

”Any bill pending at the final adjournment of a regular session in an odd-numbered year shall carry over with the same status to the next regular session.”

Thus there is no need or reason to “submit another bill,” and no reason that thousands of local residents have to yet again submit testimony, take off work and endure the often arcane practices of the Legislature — only to wind up at the same exact place.

Upon the opening of the 2020 Legislative Session, leadership in the House and Senate could simply reconvene the Conference Committee, amend HB 1191 HD1 SD2 as needed to remove any sections that are problematic, and pass it to the floor for a full vote.

While still short of a true living wage, the phased-in $15 per hour  proposal now on the table, represents a strong step in the right direction.

A Subsistence Wage

According to the Hawaii State Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism, approximately $17.50 per hour is a “subsistence” wage for a single person without children. This means a person needs $17.50 an hour to simply survive.

If the Legislature included an annual cost of living adjustment, plus a small additional increase every year, eventually a true living wage could be achieved.

The ALICE Report concluded 48% of Hawaii residents are either already living in poverty or one paycheck away from being on the streets.

To add salt to the wound, without a single legislative hearing or a public vote, every member of the Hawaii Senate and House of Representatives will receive a pay raise starting in January of 2021. Likewise, the governor, the lieutenant governor, all state judges and most top executives in state government will receive substantial pay raises.

To be clear, I do not begrudge increasing the pay for legislators and top administrators for the state. But to do so while at the same time denying low-income working people a much-needed increase, is glaringly hypocritical and totally inappropriate.

Hawaii has the highest per capita rate of homelessness in the entire United States. Every day the Legislature fails to authorize a minimum wage increase is another day that low-income workers fall further behind.

As someone who served in public office at both the state and county level for over 16 years, I know many of these legislators personally. I also know without a doubt whatsoever, that a majority of them if given the chance, would vote in support of a phased-in $15 per hour minimum wage, with a COLA provision.

I implore leadership in the House and the Senate, as the first order of business in the 2020 Legislative Session, to provide that chance.

It’s simply the right thing to do.

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About the Author

  • Gary Hooser
    Gary Hooser is a former member of the Kauai County Council.  He formerly represented Kauai and Niihau in the Hawaii State Senate where he served as Majority Leader and was Director of Environmental Quality Control for the State of Hawaii during the Abercrombie administration.  He also serves in a volunteer capacity as the President of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action.