Hawaii's Legislators Should Act Boldly In The Upcoming Session - Honolulu Civil Beat


About the Author

Gary Hooser

Gary Hooser formerly represented Kauai and Niihau in the Hawaii State Senate. He serves in a volunteer capacity as the president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action.


2020 will be over very soon. 

The pandemic is ever so slowly going away. Dr. Anthony Fauci this month predicted we could approach herd immunity by the end of summer 2021 and be back to “normality that is close to where we were before” by the end of 2021.

On Jan. 5, the special election in Georgia will decide the control and direction of the U.S. Senate. On Jan. 20, President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn in. Coincidentally, the Hawaii Legislature convenes its 2021 legislative session on the same day.

So, what now? What exactly can we do in 2021 to get back on track, recover from the trauma of this past year and chart a positive future going forward?

Thinking globally and acting locally is the key to staying sane and actually getting positive things done. We cannot and should not totally tune out the stuff occurring at the national and international level, but locally, through our individual actions, we can without question make a tangible difference.

If you are not now involved in public policy advocacy at the local level, please consider adding your voice to the collective civic square. Register here to begin reading/tracking legislation, submitting testimony, etc.

Hawaiian flag flies in the air in the Capitol Rotunda on opening day of the 29th Legilslature.
The 2021 session of Hawaii’s Legislature opens on the same day that President-elect Joe Biden takes office: Jan. 20. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

When it comes to policy and politics in Hawaii, the upcoming legislative session should receive the lion’s share of our attention. My hope is that in 2021 our legislators will collectively seize the moment and rise to the occasion. We desperately need them to do so, now more than ever.

Clearly, balancing the state budget without cutting education, social services or environmental protections will not be an easy task. It will require creative long-term revenue enhancements (taxes, fees and surcharges) that do not hurt middle- or low-income residents.

Short-term budget needs must be met with aggressive borrowing of federal funds to give time for revenue enhancements to kick in. Waste, duplication and inefficiencies must be eliminated or reduced.

But simply balancing the budget is not enough. This time of COVID-19 should be seen as an opportunity to move our state forward, not an excuse for inaction.

For starters, the Legislature must help the thousands who are now unemployed. Working with the governor, legislators must require and support reopening the DLIR unemployment office to provide in-person and timely assistance for unemployment insurance claims.

To help make amends for the ongoing debacle, the Legislature should also eliminate the state income tax on unemployment benefits, retroactive for 2020.

Creative tax policy must also be used to help struggling local small businesses. The Legislature should consider forgiving all penalties and interest due on late tax payments. They should also consider, at the minimum, deferring and possibly eliminating 2020 tax liabilities owed by small businesses on the verge of collapsing or in bankruptcy. After all, it’s government policy implemented for the greater good that’s caused their hardship.

Similar policies were put into place in the aftermath of Hurricane Iniki. I know this firsthand because my business at the time benefited from similar help following the collapse of Kauai’s tourism-based economy.

Legislators must put “big ideas” on the table. We need to develop and implement a more progressive tax strategy that shifts the tax burden to real estate speculators, the very wealthy and offshore corporate entities that export their profits, pay substandard wages and have a disproportionate impact on our public resources.

Conversely, we need to take the resulting income and provide tax credits and support to small locally owned businesses. Increasing Hawaii’s minimum wage to be on track to a true living wage is long overdue.

Let’s also have a public discussion and a vote on constitutional amendments to establish term limits for state legislators and allow residents the right to initiative, referendum and recall.

I have in the past not been a supporter of term limits, often repeating the refrain, “We already have term limits. They are called elections.” Granted, when the enactment of term limits would have had an impact on me, I was not in support of them.

However, after watching the influence of big money on our local elections and seeing term limits work successfully at the county level, I have now come full circle on the issue. There are good and forward-thinking people in that building, but they are far outnumbered by those who simply want to hunker down and do the bare minimum.

Demonstrators bring their props to an Earth Day demonstration, according to the protestors, over 70 bills died at the legislature.
A pre-COVID Earth Day demonstration on the grounds of the Legislature highlighted the death of dozens of bills. The author recalls years of watching the Legislature failing to take action on important issues. His answer? Initiative, referendum and recall. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Similarly, over the years I’ve been only marginally supportive of initiative, referendum and recall. But watching as year after year the Legislature fails to take action on many important issues leads me to conclude that the people should not be at the mercy of the Legislature. They should instead be able to gather signatures and place policy initiatives on the ballot themselves for a vote by the people, up or down.

The challenges facing the Legislature during the upcoming session are significant and so is the opportunity to accomplish truly great things for Hawaii. I would be lying to you, however, if I said that I was cautiously optimistic for I am not optimistic at all.

It is likely that our legislative leaders will again do the bare minimum and close down the session just as soon as they can. There will be attempts to leverage the bad economy and loosen environmental protections under the guise of accelerating development and construction jobs.

Big landowners and their legislative enablers will for sure be back seeking to steal public trust stream waters. The friends of big biofuel who reside on the second, third and fourth floors at the Capitol will no doubt be seeking to rescue the offshore investors of that ill-conceived pig in a poke.

As I search for a way to end this piece on an optimistic but realistic note, I find myself compelled to point out that should legislative leadership fail us yet again, the 2022 elections are just around the corner.

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About the Author

Gary Hooser

Gary Hooser formerly represented Kauai and Niihau in the Hawaii State Senate. He serves in a volunteer capacity as the president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action.


Latest Comments (0)

I hear people complain in these civil beat comments about Hawaii being such a democratic controlled progressive state. The legislature has proved that they are nowhere near progressive. It's true that they hold extremely short sessions which address very little except for the large corporate interests. Money goes a long way in politics.I endorse-as your other reader said Gary- 99% of everything that you talked about.

Scotty_Poppins · 4 months ago

A timely call-to-action considering the fiscal crisis looming on the horizon.  The progressive taxation options are a smart way to avoid cuts to workers and services. Hawaii needs to tighten the myriad loopholes that litter the landscape of tax law, especially laws dealing with real estate development and investment, and capital gains.  The Legislature has many tools at its fingertips yet always reaches for the austerity hammer. Multiple recessions, and always the same bad ideas thrown around as solutions, which actually prolong the recession and inflict more harm on the most vulnerable in our communities. On the other hand, for every $1 the State puts toward public sector investment, $1.50 will be generated in economic growth.  Rather than cutting spending, the State needs to grow a pair and raise taxes on the wealthy.  24% properties are owned by foreigners (non-residents).  Tax them at a higher rate, esp for second homes.  Direct this new tax revenue into public jobs programs as caregivers, social workers and kupuna care. Jobs to repair and restore critical infrastructure are also badly needed.  Here is an opportunity to take bold action, for the benefit of local families.

El1zabeth · 4 months ago

1. "Legislators must put "big ideas" on the table." 2. "There are good and forward-thinking people in that building, but they are far outnumbered by those who simply want to hunker down and do the bare minimum."The second statement makes the first one harder, if not impossible, to achieve. It's our job as citizens to lean on those who want to do the bare minimum, and if we can't get them to act, we vote them out in 2022.

MW · 4 months ago

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