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Lawmakers are positioned to receive two pay raises during the year ahead, a move critics described as “unconscionable” at a time of high unemployment and economic desperation in much of the community.
The raises were recommended by the state Commission on Salaries in 2019, and will take effect on July 1 of this year and Jan. 1, 2022 unless the Legislature takes action to defer the raises. Gov. David Ige, members of his cabinet and state judges are also scheduled to receive pay increases in the year ahead.
Pay hikes for elected officials are almost always controversial, but the state House added fuel to the fire this year by refusing to consider any increase in the state minimum wage to help some other Hawaii residents get raises as well.
“The fact that legislators feel that they deserve a pay raise is really just unconscionable,” said freshman Rep. Jeanne Kapela (House District 5). “You can truly call it morally repugnant, just absolutely awful.”
“I think that change takes courage, and it’s disappointing to me that in this building, with so much happening, that legislators don’t have the courage to raise the bar for everyone else, but will take it for themselves,” she said.
Lawmakers faced similar criticism in 2019 when they accepted the Salary Commission’s proposal to raise lawmakers’ pay without raising the state minimum wage. Hawaii’s minimum wage has been $10.10 an hour since 2018, which critics say is not enough to support working people.
House Speaker Scott Saiki did not respond to a request for comment Monday, but said through a spokesman he will issue a written statement later. Senate President Ron Kouchi also did not respond to a request for comment on the raises.
Other House Democrats said Saiki advocated for accepting the raises in a closed-door caucus, saying it has been some time since lawmakers got a raise. He predicted it won’t get any easier to win public support for the idea later.
The Salary Commission originally proposed that an initial raise of 10% for all lawmakers take effect on Jan. 1 — three months ago. However, as tourism collapsed in the pandemic and unemployment soared last year, lawmakers passed House Bill 117 to defer that raise until July 1.
The commission also recommended a second raise of 2.5%, which is scheduled to take effect Jan. 1, 2022 if lawmakers take no action.
The two pending raises would boost lawmakers’ pay from $62,604 now to $70,584 effective Jan. 1. Pay for the House Speaker and Senate President would increase from $70,104 today to $79,044 on Jan. 1.
Kapela said she has heard some discussion about deferring the raises again, but does not know if anything will come of it.
“I mean, it’s sad if we have legislators that are willing to take a pay raise and say that they need a living wage, while we can’t even pass a living wage for Hawaii’s working families,” she said.
Other House members and activists from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party agree.
State Rep. Amy Perruso (House District 46) said she has already pledged that any raise she gets will go to support the state public school system.
“It seems so unjust. I think it’s poor policy making in this time of economic crisis to be taking a pay raise when people who are making minimum wage have to work two or three jobs just to survive,” Perruso said. “I just think it’s unconscionable to take a raise when we have not been able to raise minimum wage.”
Republican Rep. Gene Ward said in a written statement Monday that, “This is not a time for pay raises for anyone, full stop! Our priorities have to be opening the economy and getting people back to work and throwing the Covid pandemic on the ash heap of history.”
Rep. Matt LoPresti, chairman of the newly formed Progressive Legislative Caucus, said he is frustrated “when I look at the expediency with which the state has bailed out businesses, and we contrast that with the lack of action in helping workers” on issues such as paid sick leave, family leave or minimum wage.
LoPresti said a significant fraction of the House Democratic caucus is not ready to increase the minimum wage or take action on those other issues.
Senate Bill 676 to increase the state minimum wage to $12 an hour was approved in the Senate earlier this session, but has stalled in the House.
House Labor and Tourism Committee Chairman Richard Onishi confirmed Monday he does not plan to hold a hearing on the bill this year because the House is focused on rebuilding the local economy.
“The first and I think foremost issue is supporting businesses and getting them up and running again as well as the tourism industry,” Onishi said.
“I just think it’s unconscionable to take a raise when we have not been able to raise minimum wage.” — Rep. Amy Perruso
He also cited recent news reports that Hawaii has the best-paid restaurant workers in the nation, “so to what extent our work force is actually at the minimum wage is something I want to study.” Onishi said he plans to use the interim leading up to the 2022 session to do that.
“I know there are advocates out there for the minimum wage but they have not really presented me with details on who exactly it’s going to benefit,” he said.
When asked about the optics of raising pay for lawmakers without advancing a minimum wage increase, Onishi replied that “the discussion, I think, is still being had in terms of what to do moving forward” on the pay increase for lawmakers.
He noted that salary commission recommendations also affect the salaries of Ige, administration executives and state judges.
For example, the commission recommended raising the pay for Circuit Court judges from $205,080 to $207,084 in 2019 — which was done — and also proposed giving the judges raises of about 1% a year for the following five years.
But the Legislature last year suspended those additional raises for state judges when it passed House Bill 117. The bill also temporarily suspended raises for the Legislature and Ige and his cabinet.
A spokeswoman for Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald said in a statement Monday that the Judiciary has seen the challenges created by the pandemic “and we are committed to doing our part to help the state address its extreme financial difficulties.”
The Legislature last year deferred all of the raises recommended by the Salary Commission for the financial well-being of the state, according to the Judiciary statement. “Similarly, if a general law defers these increases further, the Judiciary will understand the need to take such action,” it said.
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