The Legislature will focus on ways to lower Hawaii’s high cost of living and make the state more livable for residents during the session that opens Wednesday.

The 76 lawmakers in the House and Senate have already gotten to work looking at solutions to some of Hawaii’s perennial issues like lack of affordable housing, rampant homelessness, the state’s slowing economy and the ever more apparent effects of climate change.

Increasing the minimum wage will be a top priority after lawmakers failed to do so last year. They are spurred by a string of economic reports over the past year that detail Hawaii’s declining population and slow growth in some of its biggest industries like tourism and construction. 

Lawmakers have indicated that growing more jobs and improving education are also under consideration this year.

Senator Kai Kahele speaks during Senate opening day 2019.
State legislators will try to tackle Hawaii’s high cost of living this session, which opens Wednesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

But some say this could be a quiet year in the Legislature. And with election season hitting full stride as the Legislature adjourns in May, folks may not want to stir controversy. The primary, which decides the vast majority of races in Democrat-dominated Hawaii, is Aug. 8.

Still, big issues no one expects could crop up between now and the end of session. That was the case last year with proposed taxes on real estate investment trusts, short-term vacation rentals and issues with water rights.

Fixing the management of Mauna Kea has also been kicked to the Legislature after Big Island Mayor Harry Kim secured agreements from Gov. David Ige and University of Hawaii President David Lassner that the management regime must include more Native Hawaiian groups.

So far, protesters have successfully halted construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, the projected $1.4 billion project that has wide support in the Legislature. Project officials have no timeline for resuming construction.

Native Hawaiian groups are planning a demonstration and a voter registration event at the State Capitol in downtown Honolulu as lawmakers convene in their respective chambers Wednesday morning. Some groups have put forward ideas to amend the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act and give the Office of Hawaiian Affairs a greater share of ceded land revenue.

“The message is clear,” Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English said. “Hawaiians will not be tokenized or second-guessed.”

Thinking Out Of The Box

Both the House and Senate will try again to pass a minimum wage increase after failing last session. Advocates want an increase from the current $10.10 an hour to $17 an hour, an amount they call a “livable wage.”

A measure is likely to pass this session, but no one is sure yet what the amount could be or what incentives businesses could get. A bill to raise the minimum wage was hung up late last session over concerns that some provisions could bring legal challenges.

Balancing the needs of workers with those of businesses, who often predict price increases or layoffs should wages go up, will be the challenge for lawmakers.

But raising the minimum wage won’t be the silver bullet that suddenly raises the quality of life for all, several legislators have warned.

“Everybody wants to look at one thing,” House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti said. “It needs to be a comprehensive approach of addressing affordability in Hawaii. I think we’ll see a lot of ideas. We’re going to see out of the box thinking, and a lot of out of the box proposals.”

Rep Della Au Belatti speaks flanked by Speaker Scott Scott Saiki and left, Rep Nakashima at a press conference held after Governor Ige’s state of the state address.
House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti, flanked by Speaker Scott Saiki, right, and Vice Speaker Mark Nakashima, left, said Hawaii’s affordability will be top of mind this session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

English said minimum wage has to be dealt with in conjunction with other issues. The Senate may take up savings programs for retirement or homeownership.

The Legislature is also working on a plan to create a paid family leave program in Hawaii after a report last year detailed models the state could use to build one. Half of Hawaii’s households would fall into poverty if faced with a financial emergency, according to a report by Aloha United Way.

In some states, paid leave covers time off work for new parents or for workers who are also caregivers for family.

But creating a program for Hawaii could still take time. The models are complex, and lawmakers still need to grapple with how much it would cost to implement and what exactly the program would look like.

House lawmakers will be looking at a myriad of ways to tackle the cost of living with details coming when the Democrats unveil their plan this week.

“We are really drilling down on cost of living issues and the cost drivers that make it difficult to live here in Hawaii,” Belatti said.

Some of the proposals the legislators could take up involve building more affordable housing and providing early-childhood care and education.

Republicans in the Legislature support some of the ideas, including a minimum wage increase, so long as increases don’t hurt local businesses.

Sen. Kurt Fevella, the lone Republican in the Senate, said some workers in his district have suggested the Legislature enact a certain percent increase to the minimum wage each year. He backs that idea, but also wants businesses and government to be on the same page so workers making above minimum wage will also see wage increases.

Rep. Gene Ward, the House minority leader, also supports a wage increase, but wants it to be in conjunction with other proposals to spur economic growth and the economy, such as more tax credits for the film industry, or opening some public lands to housing development.

“We’ve never concentrated on growing the economy,” Ward said. “We’ve just cut the pie into smaller pieces rather than growing the pie.”

Keeping Workers Here

The Democrats also want to get ahead of Hawaii’s slowing economy and changing job market.

“Until we’re able to create more of our energy locally, grow more of our food locally, we’ll continue to have this strain on our economy,” Vice Speaker Mark Nakashima said during a meeting with the food industry.

And until Hawaii can do any of that, it needs to stop bleeding workers. The state had its third straight year of population decline, which is worrisome because more people are still being born here than are dying.

A declining population could hurt the state’s tax revenues, which have already been adjusted for numerous reasons, one of which is the exodus of potential taxpayers.

On top of addressing cost of living, lawmakers are also trying to keep people here and get them into jobs they want.

English said the Senate will look at retaining teachers, especially those in rural areas, by providing more housing allowances.

“We have some really good teachers that come here and then they can’t find a house,” he said.

Senator J Kalani English crossover session.
Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English wants to see various proposals to make Hawaii affordable for residents. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

Lawmakers also seem to be putting pressure on the various state departments to help out with growing the job market.

In budget hearings last week, Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, chair of the Ways and Means Committee, asked both the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism and the University of Hawaii what they are doing to help train workers in new fields.

“They know the industries that have potential growth. They know the industries that are flat or stagnant,” Dela Cruz said. “They have to figure out how we’re going to transition.”

Members of the House Finance Committee on Thursday also questioned UH on how to fill Hawaii’s physician shortage, which grew in 2019 after 150 doctors left the state.

About half of medical school graduates leave the state to complete their residencies elsewhere, Rep. Troy Hashimoto said, citing figures from UH. Not all return after their programs are finished.

“They know our local culture here, but yet half of them are leaving,” Hashimoto said during a UH budget hearing Thursday. “To me it’s a pipeline issue. If we never fix the pipeline, we’ll never fix the problem.”

The university is trying to get funds to expand its medical school program to Maui. The lack of a training hospital in the state is also a factor in keeping potential doctors around, Lassner said.

Are We Ready? Are We Doomed?

When it comes to climate change, folks are fast at talking but slow on action.

“We’ve set policies very well, but now we get into the really hard part: actually dealing with it,” English said of the effects from climate change.

The Legislature flopped last session on taking meaningful action to protect Hawaii from immediate threats posed by climate change, even in the face of reports that the state is quickly running out of time.

Reality may have set in for the Oahu-centric Legislature after parts of Kamehameha Highway in Hauula collapsed from erosion. The problem of rising sea levels has been apparent on Maui and areas of Molokai for some time, with roads at risk of falling into the ocean, English said.

Damaged Road being reclaimed by Ocean in Hauula.
Lawmakers want to work fast to protect communities vulnerable to the effects of climate change. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

English said the Senate will look at moving communities, businesses and critical infrastructure inland, a process called “managed retreat.” For example, the state could consider relaxing processes for projects that want to move away from the water.

Sen. Karl Rhoads, who introduced many of the climate-related bills last session, said there are ideas out there like shoreline setbacks, carbon offsets, reforestation money and a possible carbon tax, which he called “the mother of them all.”

Rhoads noted that lawmakers may choose not to move on a carbon tax until a report comes out in 2021.

Fevella wants to take a closer look at the siting of renewable energy projects and the impact that could have on surrounding communities and endangered wildlife.

He’s been a critic of the wind farm in Kahuku, which could threaten the endangered opeapea, the Hawaiian hoary bat. Police have made over 200 arrests during protests against the wind farm.

“We need to be very mindful of the whole picture,” Fevella said. “What is the cost to the environment, and wildlife and our way of life as human beings?”

Management Of DHHL And Mauna Kea

The protest on Mauna Kea against the Thirty Meter Telescope put the spotlight back on issues affecting Native Hawaiians.

But English said anything affecting Native Hawaiians can’t simply be solved with one bill, and needs to be addressed on multiple fronts. He didn’t give specifics on what the Senate may consider regarding those issues.

However, he indicated that legislators could try to pass a measure similar to a 2018 proposal that restructures the management of Mauna Kea by largely removing UH from the picture. House Speaker Scott Saiki said in September that lawmakers could be open to modernizing the mountain’s management structure.

Proposals for amendments to the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act could also come this session. The Sovereign Council of the Hawaiian Homestead Associations plans to introduce three bills that could alter the structure of the Hawaiian Homes Commission, enact protections against lease cancellations and foreclosures, and give Native Hawaiian beneficiaries better access to Department of Hawaiian Home Lands lands.

The bills came from ideas put forward by beneficiaries and were first presented to lawmakers in November.

Where’s The Money?

Gov. David Ige’s supplemental budget request to the Legislature is already getting some scrutiny after budget hearings began Jan. 6. The request adds millions more to the state’s operating budget and a whopping $1.4 billion for infrastructure improvements.

Many of the funding proposals, like more than $30 million to fund pay raises for hard to fill teaching positions, are getting a closer look by lawmakers.

“Instead of creating an atmosphere of collaboration, it was ‘OK. Here it is. Find the money,’” English said, adding that the administration should also give suggestions for where it could cut funding to free up money.

Ige has said he doesn’t plan to propose new taxes to help fund the requests. The state has a carryover balance of $606.6 million that could be used to cover the additional budget items.

Governor David Ige speaks during press conference about Supplemental Budget3.
Lawmakers were already scrutinizing some of Gov. David Ige’s budget requests in hearings last week. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Last year, lawmakers passed measures that could bring in upwards of $22 million each year. At the same time, they also passed new tax credits that could negate those gains.

In July, Ige vetoed $56 million worth of new taxes that could have come from REITs and short-term vacation rentals.

Dela Cruz wants to see how the funding requests fit in with Ige’s broader goals.

“I agree with a lot of his big initiatives. We need to double food production, diversify the economy,” Dela Cruz said. “But those details don’t seem to be present in the budget. And if not, we need to supplement them, because we believe in them.”

Guns And Crime And Punishment

Lawmakers may introduce proposals in reaction to a perceived uptick in crime, though any real increase in crime across the state is dubious.

Honolulu Police Deputy Chief John McCarthy said the slight spike in crime is not unusual. However, the brazenness with which some crimes have been committed is worrisome.

“The way it’s been perpetrated is something that catches us off guard,” McCarthy said during a panel discussion with KHON2. He added that crimes have occurred in daylight by some who may be weighing their actions against the risk of getting caught.

Rhoads and Rep. Chris Lee, chairs of the Senate and House Judiciary Committees, have plans to curb the use of violent weapons.

Lee, who plans to run for an empty Senate seat this year, may look at stiffer penalties for certain crimes and possession of weapons. At the same time, he wants to consider diversion programs to keep low-level offenders out of Hawaii’s overcrowded jails.

Rhoads wants to restrict the barrel length of certain firearms and limit the purchase of ammunition to those who legally own guns to curb the use of firearms that could have been purchased on the black market.

“You want to make it as hard as possible to use as anything other than a club,” Rhoads said.

House Republicans will also make fighting the supposed crime wave a priority. Ward said they will call for more funding for police departments and law enforcement.

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