Lawmakers will get to work this week scrutinizing how state agencies plan to spend millions of dollars in federal relief funds appropriated by Congress to help Hawaii deal with the novel coronavirus.

State agencies on Tuesday made their case to the House Finance Committee on how they would use federal CARES Act money to get Hawaii through the pandemic and beyond. A final decision on how those funds are spent will be up to the Legislature, which reconvened Monday to deal with budget holes.

The House Finance Committee is expected to vote Thursday on Senate Bill 75, which directs what the state agencies and departments can spend CARES money on.

Rep. Sylvia Luke, who chairs the committee, said after the three-hour long hearing that it was the most cohesive she’s seen the departments in Gov. David Ige’s administration in months. Still, some of the funding requests to spend portions of $1.25 billion in federal monies were duplicative.

House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke wants state agencies to make the best use of millions of federal dollars pouring into the state. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Other requests, such as additional staffing and building upgrades, could also come from areas outside those federal funds.

“One of the things that became evident right off, is the departments don’t have a good grasp of what funds are available to them outside of that $1.25 billion,” Luke told reporters.

Finance committee members will be working in the next couple days to pare down the requests and make sure the agencies are tapping all the funds available to them. For example, Luke said there are additional funds that can cover increased staffing for public safety in response to COVID-19.

Much of Maj. Gen. Kenneth Hara’s $100 million request, including $42 million for personal protective equipment, could be pulled from other funding sources. Additionally, the state Department of Health made a $25 million request for upgrades to state laboratories, but Luke said that would be better handled in the state’s capital improvements budget. 

But funding requests that could still get a nod from the legislators include various tech upgrades to deal with extra work brought on by COVID-19 as well as shoring up personnel in the event the number of virus cases rises again.

Among those requests is $10 million to modernize technology at the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, whose Pac-Man-era unemployment claims computer system has struggled under the load of filings in the last two months.

Lawmakers have lamented that many of the calls they get have been complaints over delays with the outdated system.

“The problem we have is the fundamental application is very dated and antiquated,” DLIR Director Scott Murakami said of the unemployment claims system.

DOH plans to sign a $2.5 million contract with the University of Hawaii, paid for with federal stimulus money, to train more disease sleuths that can trace contacts of people who test positive for the virus. State Epidemiologist Sarah Park said the department is preparing for a second wave of COVID-19 cases.

The UH program could have medical professionals trained to do contact tracing in two to three days. Non-medical personnel could be trained in about a month or two, Park said.

The lawmakers also had questions for Alan Oshima, the Hawaiian Electric executive Ige tapped to lead Hawaii’s economic recovery. His office is asking for $10 million — $9 million of which will go to various consultant services in the next fiscal year.

Oshima told lawmakers that his office plans to spend $4.9 million between now through September on a contract with Boston Consulting Group, a company helping him develop the economic recovery plan.

The company’s duties, according to budget documents, could include economic impact assessment, developing best practices from various industries, communication and data collection.

Oshima also said the state plans to have a dashboard up and running soon that shows what COVID-19 threat level Hawaii is at on a particular day. In the future, that could help coordinate the public’s response, like wearing face masks or having restrictions on certain businesses.

All told, the state could have about $550 million of unspent federal funds. Those would still be held in the rainy day fund, Luke said.

But that money also could be used to pay unemployment claims, something Ige had suggested Monday.

Luke said DLIR has applied for over $500 million in federal loans to cover its claims fund, which is already halfway depleted. Congress might decide to forgive those loans, Luke said.

But if it doesn’t, then the CARES funds could go to unemployment insurance payments, she said.

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