The Hawaii Legislature plans to reconvene in a State Capitol that’s closed to the public starting Monday. 

Topping the agenda: To address the state’s impending budget crisis brought on by the coronavirus, House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi announced Thursday.

The session is expected to run between six days and 10 days. Besides considering an estimated $1 billion in budget cuts from the $8 billion general fund budget, the Senate also needs to finish confirmation hearings for state board members.

The Legislature recessed indefinitely March 16, just after reaching the halfway point in the 2020 session.

“We felt it was necessary to reconvene to address the budget situation,” Saiki said during a press conference.

Senate President Ron Kouchi with left Speaker Scott Saiki during committee meeting. 24 april 2018
House Speaker Scott Saiki, left, and Senate President Ron Kouchi say the Legislature will reconvene Monday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

The legislators will grapple with a murky financial outlook heading into fiscal year 2021, which begins July 1. 

While the Senate Ways and Means Committee and House Finance Committee say they are looking at $1 billion in cuts, Gov. David Ige in early April projected taking $1.5 billion out of the budget.

Saiki said the money committees, chaired by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and Rep. Sylvia Luke, will look at cutting lapsed items from the budget as well as vacant positions budgeted but never filled.

Reached by phone Thursday, Luke said the Legislature wants to avoid cuts to social services and pay cuts or furloughs.

The House plans to meet in caucus Friday to discuss some ideas for the budget cuts and get ready for hearings next week but there’s been no final decisions made yet, Luke said.

Drafts for bills affecting the budget could be available as early as Tuesday after the committees hold deliberations on Monday.

The money committees are also looking at ways to generate cash for the state by allowing the governor to tap federal money markets and borrow money to pay off the state’s pension obligations, which could be an estimated $1.8 billion heading into next year.

House Bill 2200 will be the vehicle lawmakers use to make the cuts. The bill started this session with over $400 million in additional budget items for Ige’s administration.

The bill will likely be chopped up by the Senate with input from the House Finance Committee. It still needs to clear two more votes by the full Senate before bouncing back to the House for final approval.

The money committees are still waiting on a report from the state Department of Taxation expected in the next few days that shows tax collections in April. That report could give lawmakers a better idea of the state’s current financial picture than a revenue projection in early March that projected a $300 million loss in fiscal year 2021, which begins July 1.

Finance Chair Sylvia Luke and Donovan Dela Cruz Look on during county Mayors reports.
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and Rep. Sylvia Luke will take the lead on the state’s budget cuts. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Council on Revenues is expected to meet May 28 for another projection of state tax revenues for next year.

Kouchi and Saiki also used the press conference to assert the Legislature’s oversight of over $1.8 billion in federal relief money expected to flow into the state.

The Office of Federal Awards Management, staffed with just two people, is the only state agency currently tracking all relief funds. Ige also asked DOTAX Director Rona Suzuki to help coordinate applications for the funds.

“As far as the Legislature directing spending, I view it as part of our oversight function that we need to make an independent assessment of how funds need to be spent and how they should be prioritized,” Saiki said. 

For example, the committees are already working on a budget request from the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency as well as another from the three neighbor island counties for those federal dollars.

Since recessing, lawmakers in the House have led planning for Hawaii’s economic recovery alongside a group of business executives while a panel of senators have hounded Ige’s administration for details on how it has responded to the virus.

Lawmakers’ top priorities, including any raise in the minimum wage, funding more affordable housing and expanding pre-K education, will likely be set aside to deal with the pandemic.

The Legislature may reconvene again in June to take up other pieces of emergency legislation as well as any laws that could expire at the end of June, like free parking for electric vehicles.

A Closed Capitol

For this short session, the public will be physically shut out of the State Capitol building.

Kouchi and Saiki said all meetings will be shown live on Olelo, but the public won’t be present and can only submit written testimony on matters the lawmakers take up.

The legislators have been looking for ways to reconvene in recent weeks. Remote meetings and voting could take place if the House and Senate amend their rules allowing for that, according to state Attorney General Clare Connors.

But that won’t happen because of shortcomings in the Capitol’s internet and streaming capabilities.

Neighbor island lawmakers in the House will need to fly to Oahu to participate in meetings, work out of their offices and vote.  Ideally they would go straight to work, and head straight back to their place of lodging after, Kouchi said.

Update: Some neighbor island senators will be attending meetings virtually, according to a press release Thursday afternoon.

Only several rooms can be streamed at a time, Kouchi said. Saiki said the pandemic has brought those limitations into focus, and lawmakers are also working on expanding the capitol’s streaming capacity to eventually allow for remote testimony, something folks on the neighbor islands have wanted for years now.

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