The Hawaii Legislature staged a rapid, ultra-secure opening of the 2021 session Wednesday, with Hawaii National Guard troops on standby inside and outside the locked Capitol and a smattering of Hawaiian demonstrators in front of the building handing out kalo and flags.
The Capitol has been closed since March 19 after Sen. Clarence Nishihara tested positive for COVID-19 in the early days of the pandemic, and lawmakers have shifted to online public hearings and public testimony.
Though opening day at the Legislature lacked the usual speeches from lawmakers, legislative leaders still promised to tackle issues like the budget hole, election laws and affordable housing.
Security at the Capitol building could also crop up during the session.
House Speaker Scott Saiki said it is “probably unlikely” the Capitol will reopen to the public before this year’s session adjourns on April 29, especially if the coronavirus vaccine rollout moves slowly. And when the Capitol does reopen, the public should expect extra security to be in place, he said.
For years, lawmakers have debated steps such as blocking public access to the Capitol’s underground parking garage and installing metal detectors to screen visitors, and Saiki said at least some of those precautions are now necessary.
Watch legislative hearings live on the House and Senate YouTube channels. Click here for a schedule and to access cable broadcasts.
This year, the public can testify remotely via Zoom. Click here to find out how.
Written testimony is also accepted. Click here for instructions on how to create an account.
For more information on how to participate in Hawaii’s legislative process, check out our Hawaii Civics 101 video. But remember, the State Capitol is currently closed to the public due to the pandemic.
The temporary plastic and chain-link barricades installed last week to block access to the Capitol courtyard area will be replaced by some sort of permanent barricade, Saiki said, and other security upgrades may be put in place as soon as later this session.
The House welcomed eight new members and whipped through its opening day agenda in 22 minutes flat, while the Senate disposed of its business, including electing its leadership, in 17 minutes.
“The House is going to operate like a laser beam this year,” Saiki told reporters after the opening floor session. “We’re very focused on the budget, public health and the economy.”
Senate President Ron Kouchi recognized Hawaii’s citizens and the law enforcement officers stationed around the closed Capitol building for opening day.
“The people of Hawaii have continued to express their First Amendment rights, but have done so in a way that is respectful, and in a way that has been peaceful, and in a way that reflects the aloha spirit that embodies each of us here in Hawaii,” Kouchi said.
At a press conference, Kouchi also indicated his support for increasing Capitol security, and believes that any bill proposing to do so should at least get a hearing.
Kouchi said he would not speak on the state of Hawaii or the direction in which the Legislature should take it without first hearing more budget information from Gov. David Ige. He said few details came from the administration during budget briefings in the last two weeks.
Kouchi said he hopes more of the administration’s policy details, including those on any tax increases, would be made more clear when the governor delivers his State of the State address Monday.
Such tax increases may face obstacles in the Senate, with Kouchi and the other Senate leaders saying they don’t support tax increases. House leadership has also been skeptical of new taxes, with Saiki repeating his warning that “we will not tax ourselves out of this pandemic.”
But seconds later Rep. Aaron Johanson told reporters that while most local people cannot afford a heavier tax burden, “I think it’s fair for us to look at outsourcing some of what would be revenue generation” to tourists.
“We’re working on and you will see legislation that would create a climate change mitigation fee, a tax to a lot of the fossil fuel vehicle fleets specific to the tourism industry — so, rental cars, shuttles, luggage trucks, those kinds of things,” Johanson said.
“I’m quite sure that you will see these kinds of proposals where there’s a multiple-fold benefit, and some of the fee or tax increases that can be outsourced to other populations instead of local folks who are struggling,” he said.
House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said lawmakers will be focused on tax fairness, noting that while the number of tourists arriving in Hawaii grew to a peak of 10 million, “tourism spending has not grown.”
“We’re not opposed to looking at alternative taxes that will assess more on tourists and tourism activity,” she said. She also noted that the House last year approved an income tax increase on higher-income residents, although that measure eventually failed.
“We’ll probably be looking at income tax bills,” she said, including measures that would capture tax revenue from people who move to Hawaii, but do not pay income tax here. That could include part-time residents, wealthy entrepreneurs or wealthy retirees, she said.
Kouchi also hopes to see more details on how to help the economy recover, as well as how government can help new industries develop and move toward economic diversification.
Kouchi said his chamber will once again try to tackle climate change initiatives. The Senate put forward several bills last year that became law including one to strengthen coastal zoning rules, ban coal burning and limit the expansion of dump sites.
He said the Senate will also focus on “energy independence” this year.
Revisions to the election law will also be a priority in an effort to limit the long lines seen on Election Day in November. Kouchi hopes to amend a Hawaii law to allow the counties to establish more satellite voter service centers.
Kouchi also pointed to several policy ideas to help speed the development of affordable housing. One involves removing some authority from the state to conduct historic reviews of properties and handing that power over to the counties. He also aired the idea of giving the counties more land on which to develop affordable housing.
Outside the Capitol, farming and sustainability activist Daniel Anthony and his supporters arrived before dawn to adorn the lawns on each side of the building with thousands of small Hawaiian flags.
They distributed taro plants and flags to donors who dropped off farming tools in a drive-by demonstration to promote local agriculture. The organizers had 10,000 flags, Anthony said, “and our goal is to create 10,000 new stakeholders for increasing agriculture and food sufficiency in our islands.”
Around noon, an individual holding a “Black Lives Matter” sign waved at cars across from the Capitol building. Another man dressed in combat fatigues held a “Trump” flag next to him.
Other than that, there was no sight of former President Donald Trump’s supporters outside the Capitol on Wednesday morning. Opening day was devoid of the violent, far-right insurrection that state agencies have spent the last week preparing for.
State sheriff’s deputies and Honolulu police officers were stationed around the Capitol building, and the mauka and makai entrances were blocked with a 7-foot fence atop barricades.
National Guard members also held a post on Miller Street near the entrance to the governor’s mansion, with more guard members standing by in the Capitol’s basement auditorium.
Security has been heightened at most state capitol buildings in the U.S. in the aftermath of the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
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