State lawmakers on Friday unveiled a new plan for spending more than $600 million in federal stimulus money they had tucked away in the state’s rainy day fund.

Much of the money would go to help out thousands of Hawaii residents who have been hardest hit by the economic downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Some would be split among state agencies to bolster programs that face budget cuts as state revenue shrinks.

The plan, unveiled Friday during a noon press conference with legislative leaders, proposes spending millions to extend unemployment benefits, provide rental assistance to residents, expand access to child care facilities and help out commercial fishers.

The Legislature, which is set to reconvene next week and continue a session that has been disrupted by coronavirus precautionary measures, faced sharp criticism in May for how it handled more than $800 million in federal CARES Act funds. While some of that would be used for state agencies to respond to the coronavirus, about $600 million was set aside in the rainy day fund.

“Spending money is the easy part,” House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said. “Doing the right thing for our community is the hard part.”

State lawmakers unveiled a $600 million relief spending plan Friday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

The new plan would shift $230 million to the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to add a $100-a-week bonus to unemployment checks. The new program is meant to replicate a similar federal program that has been putting an extra $600 in unemployment checks each week.

Federal funding for those “plus ups” is expected to run out at the end of July.

The new appropriation is expected to cover about 117,000 unemployed individuals from Aug. 1 through Dec. 31. Contract workers wouldn’t be eligible for the program, however.

The plan also sets aside about $100 million for rental assistance through the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp.

That program would cover households earning the median income for their area or less and also run through December. 

It could help about 34,000 households, according to the lawmakers’ presentation. The rent relief could be as much as $500 a month.

The Hawaii Emergency Management Agency is expected to get $100 million to purchase additional personal protective equipment. Those PPEs are expected to go to child and elder care facilities, schools, small businesses and non-profits.

The state Department of Transportation is also expected to get $90 million under the spending plan. Those monies would go toward thermal screening technology at airports as well as other security measures including a web application for incoming travelers.

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The Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism could get $36 million to start a program that connects currently unemployed people with future employers. The program would be aimed at getting new employment sectors started to help diversify the economy.

“It’s really to grow Hawaii’s talent pool,” Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz said.

Local manufacturers making PPEs and hand sanitizer could get up to $500,000 out of a $15 million fund that would be allocated to the Hawaii Technology and Development Corp.

Child care facilities run by the Department of Health and Human Services could also get $4 million to help adapt to new safety protocols. 

Some other highlights of the spending plan include $5 million for a food assistance partnership with the Hawaii Community Foundation; $2 million for a program to assist high school seniors with college counseling; and $3 million to offset operating costs for Hawaii’s fishing industry.

The remaining relief funds, about $40 million or so, would be left up to Gov. David Ige to spend how he sees fit.

In a press release, the Hawaii Working Families Coalition, a hui of businesses, progressive organizations, nonprofits and labor unions, called the spending plan a “good first step” but noted that additional help for local families will likely be needed.

The Legislature’s announcement comes a day after Aloha United Way released another report detailing the severe financial hardship faced by thousands of Hawaii residents.

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