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The Legislature began 2020 with ambitious plans to lift residents out of poverty and make Hawaii a bit more livable.
But the coronavirus has derailed much of those plans, and lawmakers will reconvene for the third time this year on Monday with the goal of keeping the state running.
Hawaii faces a budget crisis not seen in modern history. The last few months without tourists combined with other state-ordered business shutdowns has thrown the state’s financial planning out of whack, with projections showing deficits in the billions of dollars over the next six years.
On top of that, the state still needs to find ways to deal with issues like homelessness, access to child care and climate change that have gone unresolved even before the pandemic hit.
And if hearing notices filed Friday are any indication, bills attempting to deal with those issues and others may still have a chance to clear the Legislature in this three-week session, which is set to end July 10.
Along with finding ways to deal with the pandemic, the Legislature will also be reconvening Monday against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter protests that have spread across the globe, with calls for greater police accountability.
And even as Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard hopes such reforms skip Hawaii, the Legislature has already begun looking at some police accountability measures, including one that would disclose more details including the names of police who have been suspended as well as fired, and another that would require officers to intervene in instances of misconduct involving other officers.
The State Capitol will be closed to the public for the session, and legislative committees are planning to only take written testimony. All of those hearings should be live streamed, however.
Even $1 billion the Legislature stored in the state’s rainy day fund won’t be enough to plug a budget hole that has grown since lawmakers last met.
Hawaii is expected to have $2.3 billion less to spend than previously expected in the current two-year budget cycle. Even with the rainy day fund, the state will be short $413 million going into the next fiscal year, which begins July 1.
In the short term, the hole will be plugged by taking on more government debt. Gov. David Ige is expected to borrow between $750 million and $900 million from the federal Municipal Liquidity Fund, House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said during a Friday news conference.
The Legislature passed a bill that authorizes Ige to borrow up to $2.1 billion from that fund. Borrowed money, plus interest, will be due to the federal government in three years.
Lawmakers on Friday seemed unwilling to make any cuts to government programs. In fact, some programs that may be critical to adjusting to life with COVID-19 may actually see an increase in funding.
Luke said that that could be the case with distance learning programs for the Department of Education, and programs for the homeless. Some agencies that rely on funding sources that have dried up, like the state parks division, may need some state support as well, Luke said.
The lawmakers on Friday also announced a spending plan that frees up $600 million to help hard-hit residents and state agencies deal with the coronavirus.
The governor still has the Legislature’s financial package passed in May sitting on his desk. Now that the Legislature is back in session, he has nine days left to sign the bills, veto them or allow them to become law without his signature.
House Speaker Scott Saiki said Thursday that the money committee chairs — Luke and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz — were still working with the administration on the bills.
Asked Friday about the bills, Ige said in a statement that they were problematic.
“Having money in the rainy day fund prohibits us from accessing those funds,” Ige said.
Only the Legislature can touch the rainy day fund once money is deposited into it. Ige also said he is working with the Legislature to find ways to delay furloughs, layoffs and “other difficult management decisions ahead of us.”
The budget bill, House Bill 2200, may also have other problems. On May 22, a day after the Legislature recessed, state budget director Craig Hirai sent a memo to all departments asking them to look over their budgets and determine the impact of cuts to their funds and vacant positions.
Hirai didn’t return a message to discuss those budget details Friday.
A recent report by the University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization also reminds lawmakers that there is no easy way out of the budget crisis.
“It has been suggested that economic diversification can be a solution to our current economic crisis,” writes UHERO’s James Mak, Robert Ebel and Carl Bonham. “It cannot. An economy’s industrial structure tends to change very slowly.”
Other short-term options the report presents include raiding about $483 million in unused special funds or borrowing money as Ige has suggested.
Some longer range ideas include shrinking government in strategic areas while avoiding drops in service, or making citizens pay for some of those services, like park fees. The report also recommends raising the general excise tax while also pairing that increase with certain tax relief measures for folks at lower income levels.
Saiki said the Legislature will take up bills that address the COVID-19 emergency, budget bills and any bills to extend programs set to end June 30.
But other bills dealing with domestic violence, abuse, guns and the environment might also still have a chance this session. Dozens of bills dealing with those issues and myriad others were all scheduled for hearings as of Friday night.
In the wake of the #MeToo movement and several high profile lawsuits in Hawaii accusing sports coaches at private schools of sexual assault, lawmakers could consider bills aimed at protecting victims of abuse.
House Bill 2177 would extend the statute of limitations for childhood sex abuse from eight years after a victim turns 18 to 50 years after their 18th birthday. House Bill 1942 would add to the list of occupations required to report cases of child abuse to police.
The deaths of two Honolulu police officers in January propelled several bills that would tighten Hawaii’s already strict gun laws. Bills that would ban DIY gun kits (House Bill 2744), prohibit large capacity magazines (House Bill 1902), and add regulations for stun guns (House Bill 2292) are all up for a hearing Thursday in the Senate Judiciary Committee.
That committee’s chair, Sen. Karl Rhoads, supports stronger gun regulations.
Legislators identified climate change as a key issue in January, and several bills helping Hawaii deal with some adverse impacts may still make it. One is simple: House Bill 1878 would require home sellers to disclose whether or not their property is in an area prone to sea level rise.
The other is more complicated. A proposed House version of Senate Bill 2629 would replace its contents that have to do with a carbon offset program with a law that would end coal burning in 2022. Oahu has one electric plant that uses coal.
House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti indicated that a bill proposing expanded access to preschool for all three- and four-year-olds in the state could still make it. While House Bill 2543 is not currently scheduled for a hearing, lawmakers have previously said they’d like to see it pass considering the amount of time they put in figuring out how to get the program to work.
Police reform could also get a nod this session. Legislative leaders have said they plan to pass House Bill 285, which would require more disclosure of misconduct by police officers.
Hawaii Attorney General Clare Connors also proposed a couple bills to the Senate special COVID-19 Committee that could deal directly with the state’s response to pandemics in the future.
One would give the Department of Health director the power to declare a state of emergency for 90 days with powers similar to those currently granted to the governor in such situations.
“This would allow the DOH to survey what’s happening across the world and be able to declare a public health emergency,” Connors told the senators.
That bill would also put into law the screening process for incoming travelers who must go into a mandatory 14-day quarantine.
A second bill would make reporting requirements for short-term vacation rentals consistent across the state. The bill would also help counties that want to crack down on illegal rentals by going after any that aren’t on a registry of approved short-term rentals.
Issues over how to regulate those rentals cropped up at the end of last legislative session.
The Legislature is expected to adjourn the 2020 session July 10, about one month before the primary election on Aug. 8.
With all 51 seats in the House and 13 seats in the Senate up for grabs this election, some pundits are cautioning not to expect any controversial measures to crop up so close to the election.
Measures like a bill banning vaping are unlikely to gain more traction this year. And how police reform and climate change measures fare is still yet to be seen considering lawmakers have failed in previous years to advance such legislation.
One issue the Legislature won’t be able to avoid is $100 million worth of pay raises to thousands of government workers still pending in several bills. Saiki said lawmakers are required to make a decision one way or the other.
To vote “yes” would mean an additional burden on the state’s budget. And to vote “no” could mean incumbent lawmakers, many of whom are endorsed by the public unions, could end up crosswise with a significant voting bloc.
Voting down the pay raises also means that some government employees would be on a different pay schedule than others, whose pay raises were approved in 2019.
Avoiding controversial measures as much as possible in the next three weeks may be political, but also practical. With little time left, the House and Senate can’t afford to get into standoffs so often seen in the last days of session.
There likely won’t be any conference committees, an annual tradition near the end of legislative sessions in which negotiators from both chambers try to hash out their differences. Instead, almost all of the discussion on bills between the House and Senate will need to be finished, likely behind closed doors, before a July 8 voting deadline.
Also new this time around is an upgrade to the State Capitol’s bandwidth. For the first time, all committee hearings will be broadcast live on either YouTube or Olelo.
“When the Senate session resumed in May, we noticed from the first day that the bandwidth in the building was a problem,” Senate spokesman Jesse Broder Van Dyke said.
He said the clerks and IT office spent the last two months working with an internet provider to get that bandwidth up to par and able to stream hearings.
House committee hearings will also be streamed live. Links to watch those meetings can be found on the committee hearing notices.
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