Itching to resume a legislative session that was unexpectedly suspended by the coronavirus outbreak in mid-March, Hawaii legislators are working to find a way to reconvene.

It could be as early as next week, when the 2020 session that began in January was set to wind up.

Another day being floated is May 11, though there was no firm date as of Thursday.

Key to setting a date and determining how long to meet depends on when Gov. David Ige relaxes the stay-at-home orders that are in place until May 31. If there are no changes, it could push a session into early June.

There are also questions about how to convene — in person with social-distancing measures in place, for example, remotely via videoconferencing, or a combination.

Capitol looking Mauka showing open floor plan and architectural elements.
Legislators are in talks to figure out how to reconvene their 2020 session, which was abruptly suspended in mid-March due to the coronavirus outbreak. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Discussions about reconvening are still ongoing and Civil Beat talked to a number of lawmakers who would only talk about the plans if they weren’t identified.

House and Senate leadership have been consulting with the Hawaii Attorney General’s Office to determine whether legislators must be physically present on the chamber floor to vote.

If not, neighbor island lawmakers could conceivably vote remotely via Zoom or with some other platform. House majority members have been meeting over Zoom at least once a week.

There is also the possibility of Oahu lawmakers meeting in person at the Capitol in Honolulu to vote on essential business. A quorum in the 51-member House is just 26 members — a simple majority (34 representatives live on Oahu). The 25-member Senate requires 13 votes (17 senators represent Oahu).

An Oahu-only vote would no doubt be unpalatable to many legislators. This is also an election year, and many legislators have already pulled campaign filing papers to run for reelection or for other offices.

Should neighbor island lawmakers wish to travel to Oahu, it’s likely they would be exempt from the 14-day quarantine on interisland travel that is also in effect until May 31. But, as one House member said, it might not send a good public health message for them to be seen boarding airplanes.

For now, leadership has little to provide in the way of details, other than to confirm they are working on things.

“Senate President Kouchi is in preliminary discussions about the possibility of resuming the session,” Senate Communications Director Jesse Broder Van Dyke said via email Thursday. “Questions such as what date, and how procedures will be modified with social distancing requirements, are still being discussed at this time.”

House leaders offered no formal response to inquiries Thursday.

But Speaker Scott Saiki announced in a press release that House offices at the State Capitol will remain closed through May 31 “to maintain consistency with Governor David Ige’s stay-at-home order directing all persons to remain and work from home except for those performing necessary functions.”

‘Significant Policy Decisions’

If and when the Legislature reconvenes, the priority would almost certainly be on COVID-19 relief measures through appropriations.

The money bills will be determined in large part by the amount of assistance coming to Hawaii from the federal government, and the next forecast from the state Council on Revenues later this month.

By all indications, Hawaii is expected to see a dramatic drop in tax revenues driven primarily by the near shuttering of the tourism industry.

Waikiki Beach at sunrise Thursday was nearly empty. Tourism is not expected to be back up to robust economic levels for many months. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The Ige administration has been working on ideas for an economic recovery, as have the House and Senate special committees on the coronavirus.

Unfinished business at the Legislature includes a number of gubernatorial appointees that await confirmation hearings, including members of the Cabinet.

While it is unclear what other work might be done in a reconvened session or a possible special session later this year, many legislators are eager to meet again.

“I think we need to come back,” said Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, who is a member of the Senate’s special COVID-19 committee. “The main concern is constitutional provisions on how to have floor votes, but I don’t think there is any technical issue that cannot be worked out.”

Keohokalole said serving on the special committee has made it clear to him that “there are some real serious and significant policy decisions that need to be made that are being made by the administration right now without sufficient transparency.”

For a recovery process to be meaningful, he said, the public has to have input.

“This is our purview,” he said.

Sen. Karl Rhoads, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, hopes the Legislature can take up other tasks when it meets.

“None of the other problems that we were working on are going to go away,” he said, noting that key bills were poised to meet internal deadlines before the abrupt recess. “We were coming up on second lateral, and I’d hate to see all that work go out the window.”

“We are seeing the folly of our approach to putting all our eggs in one basket.” — Sen. Glenn Wakai

Rhoads said he would like to avoid budget cuts, arguing that that would “make the recession worse.”

And, while it will not be addressed much in this session, the pandemic has exposed all too obviously just how dependent Hawaii is on one main industry.

“We are seeing the folly of our approach to putting all our eggs in one basket,” said Sen. Glenn Wakai. “Tourism has been laying the golden eggs, but we need more geese.”

Wakai, chair of the Senate Energy, Economic Development and Tourism Committee, said he would push his colleagues on what he calls a triple-A economic plan: alternative energy, aquaculture and aerospace.

“Hawaii can be a global leader in these areas,” he said. “We won’t see people picking up these technologies and moving to the mainland. It’s time to pivot.”

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