Debate is heated over the state Legislature’s decision to stash nearly $1.4 billion (including $635 million in federal COVID-19 relief money) away for a “rainy day.”

With Hawaii unemployment surpassing Great Depression levels, it is somewhat bewildering what might actually constitute a “rainy day” to the legislative leadership that pushed the decision — Speaker of the House Scott Saiki, Senate President Ron Kouchi, House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke and Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz. The decision is made even more baffling by the possibility that this could make some of the COVID-19 federal money inaccessible.

Much of this appears to be a power struggle between the governor and Legislature — one playing out at the expense of people who are suffering. But more than political infighting, there are deeper questions of whose interests the state (both legislative and executive) tends to serve in the first place — now and historically.

Austerity while people are hungry and jobless is just the latest in the state’s decades long support of policies and an economic design that bolster the wealthy class at the expense of the working class. Withholding desperately needed social safety nets in the name of “balancing the budget” is another way of saying that the budget will only be balanced on the backs of working people.

Capitol building.
Leaders of the state House and Senate elected to stash hundreds of millions of dollars in the rainy day fund rather than use it to help people hurting now because of the COVID-19 crisis. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

Whether it’s threatening the unemployed today or public workers tomorrow, these are false choices that intentionally obscure the alternative possibility of raising public money from where it has consolidated — at the very top.

Hawaii generates tremendous wealth. The problem is that it does not go to sustaining the land and people that generate it.

Plantation Style Policies

Wealth is sucked upwards and out of the islands in a plantation-style, corporate tourism economy that is propped up by the state and the public treasury. The design of our economy and the kinds of austerity decisions being made today are part of the same broader structural and political problems. There is a link between the fact that money for crisis relief isn’t being spent, and the fact that people need it so badly in the first place.

Hawaii today is often contrasted to the backwardness of its Big Five past. The Democratic Party “Revolution” of the 1950s is celebrated as a purported break from plantation rule to a capitalism of opportunity.

Though it is true that in the decades following the “revolution” much progressive legislation was passed, with the turn from sugar to tourism and Republican to Democrat, fundamental structures of inequality from the plantation era were left largely intact.

In the new plantation economy, Hawaii provides cheap labor, natural “resources” (i.e., aina), infrastructure and direct public treasury support in exchange for low-wage jobs and an inflated cost of living. Compared to the profits they extract, multinational companies pay little back to the people and land that create it. A change in form, but not in function, from plantation days of the past.

Hawaii has the highest cost of living and the lowest paid workers.

Before this pandemic arrived we were already in a state of economic crisis. Not in terms of the profits being made by the few, but an economic crisis in terms of how regular people are actually faring and the ability of kamaaina to remain in the islands.

Hawaii already had the distinction of being the state where residents are “most likely” to live paycheck to paycheck. Compared to other states, we have the highest cost of living and the lowest paid workers.

It did not need to be this way. Government, led by the people, has the power to at least ensure that wealth is more equitably distributed and locally anchored. This was core to the original vision of the working-class-led Democratic Revolution. Dominant factions of the state’s Democratic leadership abandoned such visions long ago.

Now, amidst a global pandemic and economic crash, we are at risk of manufacturing an even deeper and longer lasting economic crisis. In times like these, government spending is essential to meeting people’s basic needs and keeping the economy running to avoid further downturn. With nearly six in 10 Hawaii households having lost income and a quarter of a million residents having filed for unemployment, we need a fundamentally different response than we have been getting from government.

The state should be in session, working to rapidly provide direct financial assistance to meet people’s immediate needs for food, shelter, and health care.

The state should also follow the lead of social movements and states across the country seeking to cancel rent and mortgage payments, increase protections for frontline workers, use empty hotel rooms to shelter those without homes, and continue to reduce the number of people who are unjustly and unsafely incarcerated. Small business relief grants, money for keiki and kupuna care, and maintaining social services and public employee wages are also essential.

These are not lofty goals. There is money available for immediate relief now. Other things can be achieved through policy change without additional monies.

It is true that the state will be in a challenging budgetary position — the Council on Revenues delivered dismal projections last week. These were hardly surprising. Like other states, Hawaii’s tax revenue will decline.

This has been on the near horizon for a long time — over-dependence on the corporate tourism economy creates severe vulnerability in our economy and public treasury. But to respond with cutbacks in public spending would be devastating.

Congress is debating a new relief package that would deliver significant additional federal funds to state and local governments. Recovery funds on the way should not be put to the service of re-creating pre-COVID Hawaii.

It is past time for the state to play a bold role in moving Hawaii away from an inequitable and extractive economy, towards one in which the people who live here enjoy the wealth that they and this land generate. A carbon sequestering, regenerative local agricultural system must take priority, as should producing all of our own energy.

We also need to fundamentally transform our economy to meet human rather than profit needs, be cooperative and commons-based, regenerative and aloha aina guided. Many highly intelligent collectives have been putting forth recommendations and visions. While there is much that can be led and achieved locally, this also means being part of a wider international movement to transform the radically exploitative global economy that bears down upon us.

Crises expose and exaggerate already existing injustices. They are also an opportunity to take a different course. Having the “bluest” state government doesn’t mean we have the most progressive or compassionate. It’s time to revisit some of the original aims of the Democratic Revolution and forge a Hawaii and political leadership that is actually by and for the people.

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