Thousands of our friends, family and neighbors will stand in community food lines this week. For many, it will be the first time ever they have reached their hand out in search of free food. Over 250 thousand people are either collecting unemployment benefits or desperately awaiting approval and support.

The state Legislature, led by Senate President Ronald Kouchi (D-Kauai and Niihau) and House Speaker Scott Saiki (D- McCully, Kaheka, Kakaako, Downtown) have responded to these urgent needs by stashing $1.3 billion dollars into the state rainy day fund and recessing for three weeks so they can figure out how to spend it.

Apparently legislative leaders are afraid Governor Ige might spend the money without their approval. But they are not even sure how they want it spent. So they’ve given themselves three weeks to think about it.

Meanwhile the unemployed and the hungry twist in the wind.

Speaker Saiki speaks to media with Senate president Kouchi, Congresswoman Hanabusa, Sen Dela Cruz and Sen Brian Schatz.

Speaker Scott Saiki speaks to media at a 2017 press conference at the Capitol with (from left in back) Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, Senate President Ron Kouchi and U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz. The author says legislative leadership is lacking actual leadership.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sen. Russell Ruderman (D-Puna, Kau) summed it up well saying on the floor of the Senate, “The crisis is now, and it’s urgent, and soon we’re going to have a lot more homeless, a lot more hungry, a lot more people in permanent need of expensive social services. We should be putting aside our power struggles, our desire to stash and control money, and we should be helping our people as much as possible.”

Contrasting with Sen. Ruderman’s perspective, Minority Leader Gene Ward (R- Kalama Valley, Hawaii Kai), offered high praise for Speaker Saiki’s proposal saying without an iota of embarrassment on the House floor, “The rainy day fund is a political move …” and “We may do all that nonprofit and all that other stuff, but not right now.”

Appalling, Sad, Infuriating

Kudos to Sen. Laura Thielen (D-Kailua to Portlock) for speaking the unvarnished truth. “Not one dime for people waiting on unemployment. Not one dime for local businesses inching closer to shutting forever. Our (the Legislature’s) plan: ‘We will recess today, go home, and think over what to do. We’re pretty sure we’ll come back in mid-June.’ I am utterly mystified at the lack of urgency.”

The lack of legislative leadership, concern and action on behalf of those in desperate need is appalling, sad and infuriating. Hawaii’s people deserve better.

Rather than take three weeks off (conveniently reconvening after the election filing deadline of June 2), the Legislature could and should stay in session and do the work. There is no shortage of ideas and policy proposals the legislature could pass today, that would help people today.

Taking three weeks off to think about it and come up with ideas and proposals is ludicrous at best.

There are steps we could take now — if we had leadership.

For starters, the Legislature could today, with a stroke of a pen, remove the state income tax on unemployment benefits (including the federal $600 weekly bump). This would add approximately $400 per month to the income of those now on unemployment.

The governor would undoubtedly approve, and implement the change almost immediately. This seems like least state government could do to help make up for the application processing debacle that remains unresolved.

With just a little bit of initiative and a modest dose of political courage legislative leaders could also pass a tax incentive package that rewards landlords for discounting and/or waiving rents (both commercial and residential), by allowing that discounted or waived rent to be considered an “expense” for state tax accounting purposes.

There is no shortage of “things the Legislature could do” that would have immediate and positive impacts on those most in need at the moment. But to get to those ideas, legislative leadership must reverse its policy of not allowing public testimony at their COVID-19 meetings, and actually start listening to the many organizations and individuals who are on the ground and know the issues.

The Legislature must be in public session to do the work. Deciding how to spend a billion dollars behind closed doors, then announcing those decisions three weeks from now after fake public hearings and pro forma votes, is unacceptable.

So the obvious question is “Who you gonna call?” Without question you should and you must call to express your thoughts on the issue, and to make policy suggestions.

You should call or email first and foremost your district representative and senator. These two individuals are elected to represent you and your district. But before you call, here is an open secret you should be aware of. Before any votes are taken, the “leadership” (see list and contact information below) will tell members that the outcome of the vote is a done deal and strongly encourage (i.e., demand) that they vote in support.

“Leadership” will also let members know not so subtly that if they “make noise” or vote “no” etc., then other funding requests that member might have for their district (schools, roads, etc.) could be at risk.

Most members when confronted with this reality will then think, “It’s a done deal so why risk losing funding for my district and/or risk getting on the wrong side of ‘leadership,’ especially if it is going to pass anyway?”

So the obvious question is “Who you gonna call?”

If this pressure of a done deal and threats to district funding was not enough, the public framing of the budget maneuvers was to “prevent public worker furloughs or wage reductions.”

So, to vote against such a measure might risk both the wrath of public worker unions and legislative leadership.  Left unspoken is the reality that the legislature can and must do both, protect public workers and protect the 250,000 residents that are unemployed and soon to be on the streets.  This is not and should not be an either/or choice.

Yes, contact your representative and senator and then call or email those four individuals who are primarily responsible:

And please call or email and say “thank you” to:

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About the Author

  • Gary Hooser
    Gary Hooser is a former member of the Kauai County Council.  He formerly represented Kauai and Niihau in the Hawaii State Senate where he served as Majority Leader and was Director of Environmental Quality Control for the State of Hawaii during the Abercrombie administration.  He also serves in a volunteer capacity as the President of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action.