One day after Hawaii Senate leaders moved to approve $10.5 million in emergency spending to mitigate against the coronavirus in terms of health preparedness, the House’s top leader on Friday said his chamber would form a select committee to assess the threat to the state’s economy.

“Not only is it imperative that we all work together to ensure the health and safety of our citizens, but we must also work to secure Hawaii’s economy and financial viability,” Speaker Scott Saiki said on the chamber floor.

The committee will identify those potential impacts, develop short-term and long-term mitigation plans and monitor conditions and outcomes.

Speaker of the House Scott Saiki speaks about preparations in the budget for Coronavirus.
House Speaker Scott Saiki wants Hawaii’s economy to be prepared should the coronavirus have a negative impact in the state. His solution is to form an advisory committee. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Speaking with reporters afterwards, Saiki said he expected the committee to be formed within a few weeks and to report back to the House before the 2020 session concludes in early May.

Lawmakers may get an early indication of the financial impact of coronavirus on the state when the Council on Revenues meets March 11. Eugene Tian, the state economist, is on the meeting agenda to address the potential implications before the council makes its general fund revenue forecast for the rest of the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, and the following fiscal years through 2026.

Asked whether the Legislature may have to reconsider its budgeting in light of the growing threat, Saiki said it was premature to say. He was asked specifically about pay raises for teachers and collective bargaining for public labor unions.

“We want to assess the impact first,” he said.

What Saiki wants is to avoid what he characterized as a draconian response during the 2008-2009 recession, when the state faced a $2.1 billion shortfall.

He said that among the “difficult decisions” made at that time were to implement “furlough Fridays” and reduce the public school week from five days to four.

Public employee salaries were subject to a 5% cut and “millions of dollars” for mental health, adult dental and social services, and housing, homeless and environmental programs were slashed.

Pointing to the fact that the World Health Organization on Friday announced that the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, raised its risk assessment to its highest level, Saiki said Hawaii needed to be prepared in case it is “hit hard.”

Early indications of a threat to the state’s visitor industry include a state report of a 7.4% drop in international passengers in February and an estimated loss of $23 million due to temporary suspension of flights to and from South Korea.

Saiki said he did not know whether lawmakers might need to convene a special session based on the developing committee’s recommendations. The full House will vote to form the panel next week.

The committee’s makeup is expected to include representatives from government, the private sector, labor groups and “impacted industries.”

“We just want to be prepared,” he said.

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