House Speaker Scott Saiki says he expects the Legislature will act before the session closes out next week to defer pay raises for lawmakers, judges and members of the governor’s cabinet.

Early negotiations on the issue began Wednesday between House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Chairman Mark Nakashima and Senate Government Operations Committee Chairwoman Sharon Moriwaki, and Saiki said there is “agreement in principle” between those lawmakers on the issue.

Nakashima and Moriwaki are the House and Senate’s lead negotiators on Senate Bill 1350, which the House amended last week to delay the scheduled pay raises until 2023.

Lawmakers have until the end of this week to finalize the language in the bill, but no public conference committee meetings are scheduled on the measure yet.

Whatever else happens over the next few days, “we’re not going to remove our language to suspend salaries,” Saiki said in an interview Wednesday.

Hawaii State Capitol Building.
Lawmakers at the State Capitol are discussing a bill that would defer raises until 2023 for the Legislature, for Gov. David Ige and his cabinet, and for state judges. The deadline to finalize any changes to the measure is Friday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“The point is that the timing is not right to move ahead with the salary increases. The unemployment rate is still too high in Hawaii,” Saiki said.

Moriwaki said in an interview that “if you’re asking me personally, I agree that we could defer it since everybody’s having a hard time … It’s hard times all around on our fiscal situation.”

Lawmakers haven’t had a pay raise in three years, “but it’s for the cause, take it for the team, we really think that we should look at deferring.” But she added: “I don’t know about my colleagues.”

Senate President Ron Kouchi said in a written response to questions that “we haven’t discussed it yet. This is all just happening now.”

The state Salary Commission in 2019 recommended a schedule of raises for judges, lawmakers, the governor and lieutenant governor and members of the governor’s cabinet.

The commission originally proposed an initial raise of 10% for all lawmakers take effect on Jan. 1, or several months ago.

The salary commission in 2019 also recommended raises of 5% that were supposed to take effect for Ige’s cabinet members last July, and recommended raises of about 1% for state judges that were supposed to take effect at the same time.

However, as tourism shut down and unemployment climbed last year, lawmakers passed House Bill 117 to defer their own raises as well as the raises for judges and administration officials until this coming July 1.

The commission had also recommended a second raise of 2.5% for lawmakers that will take effect Jan. 1, 2022 if the Legislature takes no action.

Those pay hikes will automatically take effect on July 1 of this year and Jan. 1, 2022, unless the Legislature postpones the raises.

The two pending raises for lawmakers would boost their 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.

In addition, the salary commission recommended another 2.5% pay raise for the governor’s cabinet that is supposed to take effect on July 1 of this year, but that would also be delayed if SB 1350 is approved.

State judges are also scheduled for additional raises of about 1% on July 1 that would also be delayed by the bill.

Pay increases for elected officials have been a hot-button issue this year in part because a bill to boost the state minimum wage from $10.10 to $12 an hour has stalled in the state House.

That prompted public criticism that lawmakers were unwilling to boost pay for Hawaii’s lowest-paid workers, but were poised to accept raises themselves.

Ige has said he supports deferring raises this year. In a written statement released last week, the governor said he told his cabinet months ago he would not be accepting the pay increase recommended by the salary commission, and asked his cabinet to do the same.

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