Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz is back home stumping for President Joe Biden’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus relief package while at the same time encouraging island residents to get vaccinated as soon as possible.

Schatz appeared on the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight Hawaii program Wednesday to discuss what money might be headed Hawaii’s way should Democrats succeed in passing Biden’s ambitious spending plan that Republicans largely oppose.

One of the highlights of the package, Schatz said, is funding for state and local governments. Hawaii in particular has struggled during the pandemic with the evaporation of tourism and loss of tax revenues.

Schatz said he hopes that with an influx of federal dollars, Hawaii Gov. David Ige can address the state’s budget deficit and avoid furloughs and layoffs of public employees.

He acknowledged however that it won’t be enough to replace all the revenues that will most likely be lost in the coming years as the state tries to rebuild its economy.

Senator Brian Schatz takes questions during his town hall meeting held at Washington Middle School.
Hawaii Sen. Brian Schatz wants everyone who’s eligible to get a vaccine so that life can return to normal as soon as possible. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“This is my No. 1 priority partly because, although previous relief packages were great, none of them had this kind of flexible money for state and county government,” Schatz said. “I do think that it will plug the budget hole in the short term. (It does) not necessarily fix any structural problems with the deficit in state government, but it should get us through this crisis.”

Schatz, who is now the chair of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, described Biden’s relief package, which sets aside money for tribes and other Indigenous people, as “the biggest investment in native communities in American history.”

The legislation, he said, will also include money specifically for venues, such as small community theaters and concert halls, as well as for restaurants, two industries that were hit particularly hard by COVID-19.

“Any economic strategy that requires the gathering of people, has suffered the most,” Schatz said. “It’s restaurants, it’s hospitality and it’s venues. That’s why Hawaii has done very well on the COVID side, but very poorly on the economic side. We depend on gathering, that’s the lifeblood of our economy, and people haven’t been able to do it.”

He’s optimistic about the state receiving enough vaccines so that anyone who wants one can get one at least by the summer. Those who are eligible now, he said, should not hesitate.

“It’s worth emphasizing that this vaccine is pretty much a miracle of modern science,” Schatz said. “It really works. It’s going to save your life. It is going to give you your life back.”

It was clear during the 30-minute interview that the coronavirus was top of mind for Hawaii’s senior senator.

“I’ll try to be as helpful as possible, but I ain’t going to be able to find $2 billion.” — Schatz on Honolulu’s rail project

He said he had been meeting with school officials, including the head of the state teachers union, to encourage them to get students back into the classroom as soon as possible. The lack of in-class learning has hurt some students more than others, he noted, particularly those who go to public schools.

The challenge, he said, will be getting those schools on the same footing as their private counterparts when it comes to having enough resources so that students can be back in the classroom potentially as soon as the fourth quarter of the school year.

“The question is a really important one, which is that private schools have the financial resources, the space, the extra staffing, to make this work,” Schatz said. “Part of my job is to try to deliver enough federal funds so that whatever is needed for public schools to open is on the table.”

Schatz briefly discussed his new role as chairman of an appropriations subcommittee that is focused on transportation, housing and urban development.

While it will allow him to steer some money back to the islands for certain projects, he said no one should get their hopes up about securing an additional windfall for Honolulu’s fiscally challenged $10 billion rail project.

Schatz, who also sits on the Senate transportation committee, said he’ll help out where he can, but he also acknowledged that he would like to give new Mayor Rick Blangiardi and the city’s top rail chief, Lori Kahikina, the space to develop their own path forward for a project that once had a price tag pegged at $5.2 billion.

He said he also hopes Blangiardi and Kahikina will be “straightforward” about the fiscal challenges faced by the project.

“People are just sick of being told a sort of fantastical story about how there’s some magical solution to this problem,” Schatz said. “We are where we are because lots of people have told overly optimistic stories and so I want to hear from them about where they think we really are.”

“They’ve got a deficit of trust, both with the Federal Transit Administration, but also with the broader community,” Schatz added. “So I think the next thing is for them to really rigorously analyze these numbers, come clean as to where we are, and then articulate a path forward.

“I’ll try to be as helpful as possible, but I ain’t going to be able to find $2 billion.”

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