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Gov. David Ige teamed up with legislative and business leaders on Tuesday in a wide-ranging announcement of joint initiatives to tackle Hawaii’s high cost of living.
The unveiling of the Democrats’ package, which comes on the eve of opening day at the Legislature, includes three proposals to address the cost of living, housing and education.
It is unusual for a governor and House and Senate leaders to unveil a shared legislative package the day before the session launches. A press release said it was the first joint legislative bill package since 2004, when Republican governor Linda Lingle held office.
As Civil Beat reported Monday, both the House and Senate plan to address economic issues facing Hawaii in light of reports last year that the state could see slow growth in key sectors while facing a third straight year of population decline.
“This will require an entire community effort,” Ige said. “It’s an effort for all of us as a community to align our priorities and really make action happen.”
It’s not clear how broad the public support is for the package, which appears to have been conducted with groups of progressive organizations and local businesses. Special interest groups are certain to lobby lawmakers on the specifics as the session progresses.
Lawmakers and the governor are proposing slight increases to the minimum wage, more funds for affordable housing, and expansion of affordable pre-school programs to all kids by 2030, among other initiatives.
Some of the measures, like minimum wage and a proposal to allow a state housing agency to enter 90-year leases, are left over from last session.
Under the Democrats’ proposal, minimum wage would go up to $13 an hour by 2024. Progressive groups have advocated for a $17 an hour wage, and both the Legislature and Ige tried last year to raise it to $15 an hour.
Rep. Aaron Johanson said lawmakers lowered the amount to account for other parts of the package, which includes $75 million worth of tax breaks to the working class through expansion of the earned income tax credit as well as food tax credits.
The package lacks incentives for businesses, but Johanson said those would be introduced separately.
Much of the affordability initiative is meant to target the middle class. For example, those who earn too much to qualify for assistance but not enough to purchase a house yet, House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said after the press conference.
The coalition of lawmakers also rolled out an extensive housing package, including $200 million in bonds for housing developments on University of Hawaii lands in West Oahu near the first two rail stations. Another proposal could allow the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. to enter 99-year leases.
Ige supported a similar measure last year, though it died late in the session.
Some of the proposals would also speed development of affordable housing. Projects proposed for residents making 140% or less of area median income — roughly $168,000 a year for a family of four on Oahu — would be exempt from some county permitting requirements.
Early childhood education would also get another look by lawmakers. Affordable pre-K programs would be expanded to cover children ages 3 and 4.
Sen. Michelle Kidani said that lawmakers will also propose a separate office from the Department of Education that can manage construction in Hawaii’s school system.
The legislative initiatives have support from key committee chairs in the House and Senate. The collaboration heightens the chance that the proposals could clear the Legislature.
Luke said the organization of both chambers has stabilized, which has also helped when it comes to pushing through these new initiatives.
Democrats have controlled the Legislature since the 1960s. But the governor and Democratic leaders at the State Capitol have not partnered like this on a string of measures since at least 2004.
Several lawmakers in interviews Tuesday said the state’s stark economic outlook and its effects on the populace spurred the change this year.
“One difference this year: there was a common purpose,” House Speaker Scott Saiki said. “We all knew going into this session that cost of living was still on the table.”
Luke said she couldn’t pinpoint one specific issue.
“There was a new urgency I felt this year more than any other year,” Luke said. “I don’t know what led to that. It was a good alignment of people coming together. We are hoping this is the new way of doing work.”
Luke said the work began by meeting with various interest groups and citizens several months ago. She said the Legislature has not always done that.
“Somewhere along the way, we didn’t talk. We kind of lost our way,” she said.
For example, Luke said some lawmakers had no idea UH had lands it could help develop in West Oahu until they started talking.
Senate President Ron Kouchi credited Luke along with Sen. Donavan Dela Cruz, the Senate Ways and Means Committee chair, with making the package financially doable. Kouchi said he’s also developed a better working relationship with Saiki after attending out-of-state meetings.
“It gave us a chance, without everyone, and the noise, to talk about the things that are important,” he said.
But there’s still a question if the unity will last until the end of session in May, and if lawmakers are genuinely on the same page.
“If they really are unified, they could pass anything they wanted,” Colin Moore, director of the University of Hawaii’s Public Policy Center, said. “It’s not as if they have to be careful because they have this giant majority. They can do anything they want to do.”
Presenting a united front could, at least in the public’s eyes, help ease over the rough spots Ige has had with lawmakers as well as the disagreements legislators have had with each other.
Ige, a former legislator, has been at odds with the Legislature in recent years. The divide was highlighted last election season when leaders in the House and Senate openly campaigned for Colleen Hanabusa’s gubernatorial run against Ige.
The House and Senate have also been divided, highlighted at the end of last session, with hardball tactics to push through bills.
This is also an election year for all 51 House seats and 13 in the Senate, and some legislators may not want to stir controversy too close to the elections. Ige terms out in 2022.
Both leaders in the House and Senate can maintain tight control over their chambers. Many run virtually unopposed in elections and have enough support to keep power in their chambers.
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