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The Legislature’s top priorities, like building affordable housing, providing tax relief to the working class and expanding preschool, all have a long way to go.
As state lawmakers convened Wednesday, uncertainty hung over their plan to address Hawaii’s high cost of living. Many of the details in the Democratic majority’s package of bills still need to be worked out.
But in their opening day speeches, Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki set an optimistic tone about the chances of passing meaningful measures.
“As a community, we are at best treading water,” Saiki said. “At worst, we are drowning.”
Special interest groups, which may not have been involved with discussions to put the package together, will certainly lobby on those and other issues. And the 76 lawmakers in the House and Senate all come to the table with their own priorities.
The other bigger question is how long the unity of the House, Senate and Gov. David Ige will last.
“Opening day is the best day of the session,” Ige said in a noon press conference. “It’s the day the State Capitol is the people’s building.”
The House, Senate and governor all have different reasons for getting on the same page to tackle Hawaii’s cost of living.
For the Senate, it was money. House leaders sought to break down the divisions between some of their committees and within the Ige administration. And for Ige, it was a break from complacency.
The unity of the executive and legislative branches will be tested over the session, which runs through early May. While they agree on key proposals, disagreements or a change in priorities could always reshape the end result.
Kouchi said during a press conference in Senate chambers that a steadier projection of tax revenues by the Council on Revenues from May 2019 and a similar projection again earlier in January helped the Senate get onboard with some of the governor’s priorities.
The council’s next fiscal forecast is scheduled for March. If it changes, the Senate may need to adjust its priorities.
“If it gets downgraded, we’re going to have to make some hard choices,” Kouchi said.
House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti said lawmakers involved Ige’s administration from the beginning when planning the proposals.
Saiki said that getting Ige more involved in the process could help them work out differences to avoid possible vetoes.
Looking at the issues affecting Hawaii’s cost of living also forced both lawmakers and state departments to break out of their silos and communicate with one another.
“We noticed that departments focus on their subject matter but don’t really communicate with other departments,” Rep. Sylvia Luke, the House Finance Committee chair, said.
For Ige, many of the affordability issues the Legislature took up, like early child care, have been considered by his own administration.
“Business as usual is not good enough,” Ige said.
He believes that working with lawmakers could help him with his own priorities.
“Incremental change is not good for us,” Ige said. “Could we be bold in a few select areas?”
Hawaii lawmakers largely reiterated the legislative priorities announced Tuesday. Both chambers will focus on reducing income inequality, providing affordable housing and early childhood education.
“There is one constant that has and will continue to dominate our work,” Saiki said. “Many people cannot make it in Hawaii.”
Legislative leaders said they were spurred to action by a series of economic reports last year that detailed Hawaii’s declining population and slowing economy. The ALICE report, put together by Aloha United Way in 2018, also woke up lawmakers to the stark reality many residents have faced for decades.
While about 10% of residents are below the poverty level, 37% more are just getting by, according to 2016 data in the ALICE report. The Legislature wants to focus much of its cost of living measures on that population.
Proposals include giving $75 million worth of tax credits to the working class and raising the minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2024. The tax credits and wage increases are expected to add up to annual cash benefits of $4,600, Saiki said.
Saiki, referencing a state study on housing demand by 2025, said the state could be short 17,000 housing units. The House plans to pass a $200 million infrastructure package for University of Hawaii lands in West Oahu, as well as $75 million for infrastructure on neighbor islands.
The House also plans to open certain state lands to affordable housing developments, Saiki said, as well as streamlining certain building processes like expanding the acreage for certain zoning exemptions and kicking review of historic buildings to the counties.
“Hawaii is at a crossroads, both to opportunity and to threat,” Micah Kane, CEO of Hawaii Community Foundation, said during an opening prayer in the House session.
That threat, Kane said, is Hawaii families leaving for the mainland or elsewhere because Hawaii is too expensive.
“Let us stay focused on our north star,” Kane said. “To keep our local families here and bring our people back home.”
Rep. Gene Ward, the House minority leader, said the chamber’s five Republicans will focus on public safety to fight an apparent increase in crime in certain neighborhoods. Ward said he also wants stricter regulations on vaping.
“We have a problem on our hands,” Ward said. “It’s unacceptable.”
Ward called for an end to gut and replace, a practice in which the lawmakers replace a bill’s contents with contents of another bill. A case is now pending in the Hawaii Supreme Court that could halt that legislative practice.
Representatives took time recognizing dignitaries in the audience, including former Gov. George Ariyoshi. Rep. Cynthia Thielen, the progressive Republican who earlier this year announced her retirement after 30 years, received a standing ovation from her colleagues.
Kouchi said during his speech that the Senate has received criticism over the years for being secretive, getting to the point of agreement on important legislation too late in the session and not giving the public enough time to give input.
By coming up with four initiatives the day before opening day this session, they are hoping to create a more transparent process that engages the community, he said.
“We are working hard to address the concerns of the working men and women of Hawaii,” Kouchi said. “We are working hard to address the issues about Hawaii not being affordable and losing our most valuable assets – our people.”
More than 3,000 bills are expected to come in over the next week with myriad proposals.
Just months after the Legislature adjourned last year, protests erupted around the state. First on Mauna Kea, where activists successfully halted construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, which has now delayed work indefinitely.
The City and County of Honolulu has also amended plans for a park in Waimanalo after making a deal with protesters against a planned development at an area locally known as Sherwood Forest.
In October and November, police made more than 200 arrests in Kalaeloa and Kahuku after west and north Oahu communities banded together to block delivery of parts for the Na Pua Makani wind farm in Kahuku.
There were demonstrations outside of the State Capitol as well on opening day. Thousands filled the rotunda, with dozens more packing the railings on each floor of the State Capitol. Crowds always flock to the Capitol on opening day, but between the throngs of school students and Native Hawaiian activists, the gathering seemed larger than previous legislative openings.
“Hawaii Rising” brought together protest leaders like Kaho’okai Kanuha, Pua Case and Kealoha Pisciotta, to name a few. Other organizations were there to help register new voters. Petitions circulated to return crown lands to Native Hawaiians.
But while the demonstrators had a large presence outside of the State Capitol, details on any policy decisions lawmakers could make to address Native Hawaiian issues were virtually absent.
Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English provided few details on how his chamber could address issues affecting Native Hawaiians. He said the focus would remain on addressing the Senate’s broad goals, which could also help Native Hawaiians.
Leaders in the House said the same.
“Native Hawaiian issues are complicated, they’re complex, and people have different perspectives on how to handle all of them,” Saiki said. “Astronomy is an emotional issue for a subset of the population. I’ve always felt a majority of the Hawaiian community is really more concerned about the larger issues: education, health, imprisonment of Hawaiians. That’s where the majority sits.”
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