We Need To Spend Half A Billion Dollars In 123 Days. Here's How To Do It - Honolulu Civil Beat

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Thanks to 823 donors, we've raised $121,000 so far!


About the Author

Jill Tokuda

Jill Tokuda is a former chair of the Hawaii State Senate's Ways and Means Committee and is an advisor to the Hawaii Data Collaborative. The views reflected in this piece are her own.

If you had over half a billion dollars to help Hawaii during these unprecedented times, what would you do with it? That’s a hypothetical question for almost all of us, but it’s a real one for those responsible for spending the CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Funds that Hawaii has received.

Hawaii now has just four months — 123 days to be exact — to completely spend down its CRF monies. Since the federal government sent $1.25 billion in CRF funding to the State and the City and County of Honolulu five months ago, only 6% of that money ($79.2 million) has been spent.  And while plans have been made to spend an additional $610 million on COVID-related costs (including PPE, food distribution, housing relief and small business support), over $560 million remains unallocated.

The House Select Committee on COVID-19’s CARES funds subcommittee has been working with the Hawaii Data Collaborative, the Department of Budget and Finance, the State Office of Federal Awards Management and the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism to provide oversight and ensure that CARES funds are spent in a timely and effective way.

This collaborative public-private partnership has resulted in unprecedented transparency and public access to data on all available federal dollars received as a result of COVID-19.

What is urgently needed now from those responsible for spending the remaining funds is transparency. The public has the right to understand how decisions are being made and to partner with government to put good dollars to work for our people.

Possible uses for the remaining $560 million have included reimbursing state and county departments and agencies that have already spent money in response to COVID-19, adding on to existing CRF-funded programs such as housing and workforce development, and having the remainder of the funds revert to the Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund.

Hawaii has received over $9 billion in federal funds since the pandemic began. Included in this amount is $1.25 billion in Coronavirus Relief Funds; the CRF money is spread out across almost all of the categories seen here. 


Given that these federal resources are finite and available for a limited time period, they should be spent in a strategic and responsive way.  Potential approaches include:

• Create An Emergency Response Fund And Establish Triage Teams To Quickly Deploy Resources

We’ve all heard the devastating statistics and stories of struggle. From our Pacific Islander community critically impacted by the coronavirus, to our network of adult residential care homes struggling to keep our kupuna and their families safe, to individuals and families that are homeless, and our frontline and essential workers. Allocating our existing federal funds for testing, quarantine facilities and housing, medical care, PPE and sanitation supplies will make sure these communities do not continue to fall through the cracks when it comes to getting the help they need.

• Establish A Financial Relief Program For Small Businesses

Working with advocates and industry representatives, identify and provide resources to help with the most pressing needs facing Hawaii small businesses struggling to stay alive while adhering to COVID guidelines. A recent survey by the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii and the Economic Research Organization at the University of Hawaii found that one in six businesses indicated they may permanently close and 75% have been forced to cut positions and other expenses.

The harsh reality is that significant federal dollars have been expended and are needed because the struggles and challenges we face are so great.

One such area of support to consider is assistance with health care premiums paid during the pandemic. A potential model that could help small businesses as they maintain health coverage for their employees: Hawaii’s Prepaid Health Care Premium Supplementation Trust Fund, which provides eligible small employers (eight or fewer employees) with partial reimbursement for the health care premiums they pay.

• Create A Nonprofit Reimbursement Fund

From the very beginning of the pandemic, Hawaii’s nonprofit organizations have stepped up and extended all available resources to meet the urgent and growing needs of the communities they serve. All in response to COVID-19, organizations statewide have been stretching and overextending their existing resources to help with food distribution, housing assistance, access to PPE, domestic violence and mental health services, and so much more.  Much of what has been done to serve the community and provide a continuum of care in the face of this pandemic are eligible expenditures for CRF monies and should be reimbursed using these funds in order to further extend the outreach capacity of these organizations.

To date, Hawaii has been awarded a total of $9 billion in federal COVID-19 funds, which includes the $1.25 billion in Coronavirus Relief Funds. Of that $9 billion, $6.8 billion (76%) has already been drawn down, disbursed and expended. Much went directly to individuals and businesses through IRS stimulus payments, federal unemployment “plus up” payments of $600 a week and programs like the Paycheck Protection Program and Economic Injury Disaster Loans.

To put that amount in perspective, the Council on Revenues is projecting Hawaii will collect a total of $5.8 billion this fiscal year in income and general excise taxes.

While the federal money has definitely helped to keep families and businesses afloat, it is by no means enough to carry us forward in this new normal. With the clock ticking and needs piling up at the door, an expeditious and transparent process to determine essential needs must be matched with a swift deployment of the remaining federal funds.

The harsh reality is that significant federal dollars have been expended and are needed because the struggles and challenges we face are so great. If people were back to work and businesses were open, spending all the federal funds available would not be as urgent. If families were able to put food on their tables without worrying about the roof over their heads, and health care providers weren’t at the brink of capacity, these funds would be less vital.

While many are looking to Congress for additional help or to extend the deadline to use the $1.25 billion in CRF monies past the end of the year, there are no guarantees. Hawaii must double down now on what is most important with the money that is available. No one wins if we wait or are indecisive.

People sit outside the Institute of Human Services located on Sumner street during the COVID-19 pandemic. August 14, 2020
The need in Hawaii is already great and is only going to grow as the economy collapses. Federal stimulus dollars will help but officials need to start spending down the balance. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

To ensure transparency, we need:

• Plans Made Public For The Remaining Funds

It is critical that the governor and the mayor of Honolulu outline and publicly share their plans, intentions and timeline for disbursing all of the remaining funds.

• A Clear Process To Apply For Funds

A process leading to transparent and quick decision-making should be identified for entities and industries interested in partnering with government to spend CRF monies helping the community.

• Benchmarks And Targets For Spending The Funds.

Benchmarks and targets must be established for all allocations, and contingency plans should be publicly shared and vetted well in advance to ensure the most effective use of these funds.

Share Your Ideas

This is a critical “use it or lose it” moment for our state and we are all responsible to ensure swift and purposeful action to spend these funds as they were intended — to contain COVID-19, to maintain the health and welfare of our people, to support families and workers who are struggling and to provide lifelines to barely surviving businesses.

The needs are great. We have the funding. Now we must step up together and find the way.

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About the Author

Jill Tokuda

Jill Tokuda is a former chair of the Hawaii State Senate's Ways and Means Committee and is an advisor to the Hawaii Data Collaborative. The views reflected in this piece are her own.

Latest Comments (0)

Now is the time to escalate investment in diversifying the economy, especially in the ares of self sufficiency. Earmark monies for retraining in the fields of agriculture and farming technologies. One day we will face a sustainability crisis from man made or natural disasters and we need to be prepared for "unprecedented" crises like this pandemic.

Kinaole · 3 years ago

1. Control the pandemic:a)Train and hire as many contact tracers as needed. There are excellent online training for tracers that take 24 hours to complete.b) widespread, frequent, easy/convenient testing in hard hit communitiesc) educate those in hard hit communities on social distancing, mask wearing etc.d) use quarantine hotels to isolate those that test positive and live in close quarters with otherse) remove all quarantine exemptions except for the absolutely truly essential workersf) secure saliva tests (since we don’t have enough swab kits) and test everyone who lands at any airport in Hawaiig) hire more nurses and healthcare professionals from the mainland if needed (lots of folks will come to Hawaii for 3 months)2. Retrain workers and diversify the economy. Out of characters so can’t elaborate!

kbaybaby · 3 years ago

It’s way past time for our legislators to step up, and force the state to spend our federal relief money where it’s rightfully needed. If a majority of elected reps. need to force gov.Ige out by lawful means,, so be it. Please do not allow gov. Ige to stall the remaining 123 days left to spend those funds. By doing so, he will dwindle away the time, stalling as he does so well, and then at the eleventh hour cherry pick how and where to spend our remaining recovery funds on minority/special interest pet projects because " no more time" left. This is "situation critical" . 

pohaku · 3 years ago

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