Top Hawaii lawmakers have signaled that thousands of state workers shouldn’t expect pay increases anytime soon given the state’s historic budget shortfall.

The governor has introduced measures to fund pay increases for all public workers except police. Contract negotiations for those workers are likely to start this year, House Speaker Scott Saiki said.

But Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi hedged against the Legislature approving those pay raises during a Civil Beat panel discussion Thursday afternoon.

“I hope they’ll all be very realistic about the state of our economy and state finances,” House Speaker Scott Saiki said of public workers unions.

House Speaker Scott Saiki, bottom left, and Senate President Ron Kouchi, bottom right, hedged against the idea of raising public worker pay at a time the state is dealing with a historic budget shortfall. Screenshot/2021

Senate President Ron Kouchi recalled his time on the Kauai County Council in the 1980s when the county faced a recession.

“I have never experienced the kind of deficit we’re facing now, especially with such a limitation on the tools we have available to facilitate an economic recovery in a short amount of time,” he said. 

Kouchi later added, “It’s going to be challenging to make the case how you can get pay raises in this current economic climate.”

Yet, last year lawmakers approved $150 million for public worker pay raises for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30.

Saiki said at the time that it would have been difficult to not pass pay raises for those workers because other workers in similar positions already received raises.

Hawaii’s unions still have much political sway in the Aloha State. But the statements Thursday from Hawaii’s two highest ranking legislators is the first indication that the unions may not get all they want this year.

The statements also come in the same week that Gov. David Ige announced he may be walking back a proposal to lay off 149 state workers.

House Digging Into ADC, Auditor

During the panel discussion, Saiki also said the House will hold an informational briefing on the Agribusiness Development Corp., which has come under scrutiny in recent weeks after a scathing audit found that the agency has not fulfilled its mission to put farmers on former plantation lands.

The University of Hawaii Economic Research Organization followed with another critical report Jan. 22.

Saiki wasn’t specific on what exactly the House inquiry would dig into. But he said that he was concerned with the agency’s land acquisitions.

The UH report found that the ADC is adept at procuring land, but less so in putting farmers on that land.

Kouchi said that ADC lands on the East side of Kauai have been put to use by a farming cooperative. Still Kouchi acknowledged the auditor’s findings.

“We need to get the land into production,” Kouchi said.

Les Kondo, the state auditor, is also coming under fire from House leadership, including Saiki, who has created a panel to investigate the auditor “to see that the state auditor’s work is timely and reliable.”

The proposed legislative budget sitting in the House would halve the auditor’s current budget.

Asked Thursday if that is prudent, Saiki said that the Legislature is looking at ways to reform government, including within its own agencies.

Kouchi was less bullish on the idea of targeting Kondo, whom Kouchi recommended for the auditor’s position in 2016 after being pleased with his work as the director of the Hawaii Ethics Commission.

“We’ll see what the speaker’s committee comes out with, but we didn’t feel like we need to look into anything,” Kouchi said of the Senate.

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