Sen. Laura Thielen: Legislature Has A Chance To Do Its Job Right - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Laura Thielen

Laura Thielen is a former chair of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and current state senator for District 25 (Kailua, Waimanalo, Hawaii Kai and Papahanaumokuakea).

We recessed last month to decide how to spend our $632 million in CARES Relief funds. As I wrote last month, we at the Hawaii Legislature fell far short in our responsibility to the public who is suffering financially in the wake of COVID-19.

Meanwhile, it’s gotten worse. Over 220,000 Hawaii residents are unemployed. Businesses are closing, jobs are disappearing. Food lines are continuing. Evictions will start after emergency orders end. Federal unemployment insurance and Paycheck Protection Program aid will end by August, when another wave of bankruptcies is expected.

When we reconvene next week, we must spend the $632 million CARES Relief to keep our residents, local businesses and nonprofits afloat. According to local and national economists, that is the fastest way to economic recovery.

There’s another reason to put the $632 million into the hands of Hawaii’s people. We can turn crisis into opportunity. We can make progress on long-desired goals while helping people through the economic damage caused by the coronavirus. We can do more than just “recover.” We can begin to thrive.

Capitol Building Honolulu Legislature. 1 may 2017
Lawmakers have a chance to help local people and groups suffering due to COVID-19 when they reconvene Monday at the Hawaii State Capitol. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

We should focus on items that do double-duty: getting us safely back on our feet, but in a way that diversifies our economy and enables people to earn higher wages. For example:

  • Let’s go all in on early childhood education. People can’t work without child care; social distancing means providers serve fewer kids. Create more places that prepare our keiki to succeed.
  • Let’s clear paths to jobs where people can earn higher wages and we can build a more diversified economy. Community colleges have 6-month, 1-year and 2-year programs for jobs with a shortage of workers. Give full scholarships to unemployed workers.
  • Let’s help small local businesses and nonprofits, who employ most people, to keep them employed. Give them grants for virus safety protocol, but also to expand online sales to export more Hawaii products, deliver more services, install renewable energy, or expand local food production.

We should ensure those in greatest need have assistance:

  • Support nonprofits with networks to deliver food, health care and shelter more quickly and cost-effectively than the state.
  • Expand state health insurance to provide coverage at affordable fees for long-term unemployed with income just above Med-Quest limits.
  • Keep people housed through emergency grants for low-income rentals with incentives for landlords to reset rents to reflect the current economy.

Here’s what we should not do: fold the $632 million CARES Relief funds into the state budget for state expenses.

There’s a push to do just that. We’re hearing the arguments: We must keep the state whole; cutting state services will hurt people and furloughing state workers will hurt the economy. State workers accept lower pay; it’s not fair to deny them negotiated raises. We gave money to the counties; they can keep people afloat.

It’s Not ‘Us Or Them’

While I recognize the difficulty in balancing our budget, these arguments present a false choice. It’s not “us or them.” The state will not recover until the revenues of residents and local businesses recover.

If we don’t spend that $632 million to help residents, local businesses and nonprofits, we will be cutting state budgets, services and positions far longer than two years.

Each local business that closes its door, each person who remains unemployed, each family who moves to the continent, the longer it takes the state to regain tax revenue.

Keeping people in their homes and in jobs with health care is less expensive for the state than providing those services.

The state has a vast reservoir of resources to pull from to balance our budget, whereas our residents, local businesses and nonprofits do not. We have a $15.4 billion budget: $8 billion in general funds, and another $7.5 billion in special, federal and other funds. While we’ve lost general fund revenue, we can shift a lot of those costs over to special and federal funds. The state can borrow money at very low interest rates to maintain essential services.

The state has the power to defer expenses, including deferring our own salary increases for next fiscal year. We can keep current dates of raises for purposes of retirement benefits and set up a payback plan.

Residents are in the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression.

Does anyone really want to tell the 220,000 unemployed and their families, the small store owner with few sales whose lease is guaranteed by her home, the store clerk with reduced hours risking COVID-19 for minimum wage, that we’re keeping the $632 million for ourselves because it’s unfair for us to wait on a raise?

The counties are not big enough lifeboats for the hundreds of thousands of residents, local businesses and non-profits who are close to drowning. If you add all four city and county budgets together, they are less than one-third of the state budget. Our residents are in the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression. The need is huge and will continue for at least a year.

If we refuse to throw the $632 million CARES Relief lifeline to our residents, local businesses and non-profits, and keep it for ourselves instead, the state government will flounder in the water for years after they go down. It wouldn’t be just cruel. It would be self-defeating.

Hawaii residents deserve a clear explanation of how the $632 million of CARES Relief funds will be spent, and an accounting of those expenditures and outcomes at the end of the year. The choices should be based on a coherent strategy outlined by our governor and legislative leadership. We should expect nothing less when we come back to session next week.

After all, we took a month off to think it over.

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About the Author

Laura Thielen

Laura Thielen is a former chair of the state Department of Land and Natural Resources and current state senator for District 25 (Kailua, Waimanalo, Hawaii Kai and Papahanaumokuakea).

Latest Comments (0)

Hey Laura, Thanks for opening up this Forum about the $632M CARES money, and encouraging us to think outside the box.  Since the quarantine, many buildings downtown have been emptied of people working from home.  I hear that some of the buildings are being revamped into condominiums.  That's a good idea. Give people construction jobs.  Provide more homes/ affordable homes.  There are empty hotels.  How about turning them into schools or colleges?  Become a college town like Austin?  How about taking a few million from the stalled rail during this crisis to diversify this tourist town?  I like the idea of opening up more choices for medical insurance; medicare for all.  Let's take the progressive road.

sylT · 2 years ago

As Laura wrote: "Hawaii residents deserve a clear explanation of how the $632 million of CARES Relief funds will be spent, and an accounting of those expenditures and outcomes at the end of the year."  I think the state should do much better than that and have a running, live database that lists how the money is being spent by the day or week which would be accessible to all state residents via internet and media. Let's have transparency, not the typical Hawaii government obfuscations that I've put up with for 26 years.

daredesign · 2 years ago

Thank you Senator Thielen!Thank you for addressing the need for rent money facing most individuals and businesses.  Please also consider taking a hard look at why we are overspending on health insurance via HMSA.  Right now, the state is overspending $175 million per year for public employee health insurance.  If HB1462 passes, that will change.  HB1462 replaces HMSA with a Self Insured health insurance system, created by the Western-Hawaii Management Group.The huge savings is based on administrative simplification.Additionally, this bill calls for an end to pre-funding future EUTF payments, which amounts to $500 million per year, which is aimed at addressing the billions in unfunded future liabilities.29 states have ceased pre-funding, and instead self fund, at lower cost, each year.If that sounds risky, perhaps compromise by simply pausing the pre-funding until this revenue crisis is over.Please schedule a hearing for HB1462 , Mahalo!

dennisbmiller · 2 years ago

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