Lawmakers will have their work cut out for them when they try to finish the 2020 legislative session, which will likely end without following through on big plans for financial help for struggling families that were heralded when the session began in January.

The budget could again be scrambled, proposals earlier this year for $75 million in tax relief and a minimum wage raise are likely dead, and the Legislature will be reconvening June 22 amidst two crises. 

One is the state’s economic situation, the other is how to address criminal justice reforms in the wake of the death of George Floyd, which has led to worldwide protests.

Senate President Ron Kouchi and Speaker Scott Saiki announce an unprecedented recess due to COVID-19 at the Capitol.
Legislative leaders, pictured in March, announced Tuesday that they will reconvene session June 22. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

House Speaker Scott Saiki said during a news conference that bills taken up during the final leg of this legislative session will include bills to address the budget, emergency bills to change certain laws that are set to sunset June 30 and bills to address the coronavirus pandemic.

The House and Senate could also take up police discipline measures before the session is expected to adjourn July 10.

But overall, legislative leaders at the Tuesday afternoon press conference were somewhat vague on proposals they could take up when the Legislature reconvenes.

They were mum on specific budget cuts coming to the state.

“We don’t have any final plans,” Senate President Ron Kouchi said. “Everything is back on the table for consideration based on the best economic data we have.”

He said that the money committee chairs, referring to Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and Rep. Sylvia Luke, are still trying to work things out with the administration to figure out the budget situation.

Saiki added that they are waiting on figures for April tax collections to figure out the state’s finances. He also noted that lawmakers have been told to steer away from any proposals that could cost money.

However, there are still about $100 million worth of previously bargained for pay raises for thousands of Hawaii’s public workers sitting in bills at the Legislature.

Saiki said the Legislature is in a tough spot with the pay increases. About half of Hawaii’s collective bargaining units already got their salary adjustments because those were budgeted in prior years, and to kill these new agreements could mean different units could be paid much higher than others.

“That’s one thing we’re facing: the units being treated different just because of timing,” Saiki said.

It’s also a political predicament for lawmakers seeking reelection this year. To vote in favor of pay cuts or to vote against pay raises would likely irk the public worker’s unions, which vehemently opposed Ige’s proposed cuts in April.

The Legislature recessed May 21 after passing a slate of bills to shore up the budget by storing over $1 billion in the general fund. All those bills are still on Gov. David Ige’s desk pending approval.

Saiki also said the lawmakers pushed the reconvening date back a week to give them more time to figure out the budget.

Now, lawmakers will need to come up with about $413 million to pass a balanced budget this fiscal year. That new figure comes after a panel of economic experts projected that Hawaii will have $2.3 billion less to spend than previously thought.

Already, some agencies that rely on state funding, such as the University of Hawaii, are bracing for more cuts to their general fund revenues.

The budget situation has meant lawmakers must reshuffle their priorities, and will likely forgo passing a joint package touted by the House, Senate and Ige in January.

Among those measures that won’t pass includes House Bill 2541, which would have provided $75 million worth of tax relief for low-income families and raised the minimum wage to $13 an hour. An affordable housing omnibus measure that also sought to deregulate some land use laws may also not pass.

However, House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti said the legislators are trying to find a way to keep several education bills that deal with pre-K education alive. Some funding for affordable housing was also included in the state’s $5 billion capital improvements plan.

Police Discipline

Some of those specific police reform pieces include beefing up the law enforcement standards board, a panel created by the Legislature in 2018 to set minimum training standards for law enforcement officers, Saiki said.

The board has failed to do that, and so far has only asked the Legislature for more time and more money to do its job. Saiki said more money may not be an option given the state’s financial situation, but said there might be “non-fiscal type reforms we can make there.”

Saiki also mentioned a proposal to require police to intervene when they see their fellow officers involved in potentially unlawful situations.

Belatti also reaffirmed the leadership’s commitment to passing House Bill 285, a measure that would require more disclosure of officer misconduct records.

It stalled last year in negotiations between the House and Senate. Kouchi said the key difference is the effective date of March 2020 in the Senate’s version is not found in the House’s. That would make obtaining previous records difficult if not impossible.

Belatti said the legislators will also be watching any reforms moving in Congress that could affect state policies.

“We need to do it thoughtfully,” she said.

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