Hawaii lawmakers wrapped the 2021 session Thursday owing a great deal of gratitude to the federal government and the state’s congressional delegation.
The Legislature began the session in January fretting over how to cover up a budget hole brought on by the pandemic. They ended the session hanging their hats on programs they used federal relief funds to pay for like extra stipends for teachers and a multitude of social services that could have been axed had the federal dollars not come in.
“It’s really extraordinary to see how differently the legislative session has gone as a result of congressional action,” Senate Majority Floor Leader Jarrett Keohokalole said during a press conference. “We were able to restore really significant and painful cuts to services that were expected.”
Senate President Ron Kouchi thanked U.S. Sens. Brian Schatz and Mazie Hirono and Congressmen Ed Case and Kai Kahele. He also congratulated the Senate Special COVID-19 Committee that helped last year in prying information on the pandemic from the state and uncovered an inadequate contact tracing program.
The Ways and Means Committee will be making visits to each of the four counties to follow up on programs lawmakers funded, Kouchi said. He added that he will allow Sen. Sharon Moriwaki to form a special committee that will dig into broadband issues in the state, and that there will also be a focus from senators on safely getting more children back to in-person schooling.
Among their successes this year, senators listed a proposal to allow the state to treat those dealing with substance abuse issues at Leahi Hospital, a bill that Gov. David Ige signed earlier this year to hold off on unemployment insurance taxes, and a proposal to allow Honolulu to manage its own emergency medical services.
House Speaker Scott Saiki offered a list of session accomplishments in a floor speech Thursday, ranging from University of Hawaii scholarships for special education students and creation of a new forest stewardship program, to providing more money for general assistance support payments for disabled persons.
He also pointed to changes in state law to reform the “predatory” payday lending industry, and lawmakers’ move to boost fees and taxes for tourists to have them “pay their fair share.”
“As you know, the past year and a half has been the most brutal in history for the Legislature, but I’ve never seen the House so focused, and work so hard before,” Saiki told his colleagues. “Everyone made a contribution. Everyone made a difference. Everyone represented their constituents admirably.”
He added: “Do not let anyone say — do not let anyone say — that this was a ‘do-nothing Legislature.’ Our achievements are significant, and they will help the residents of our state.”
Legislators considered more than 3,000 bills this session and ultimately sent more than 230 to the governor.
Ige made it clear in an interview Thursday he takes a dim view of some of the Legislature’s supposed achievements, particularly the moves by lawmakers to reorganize some parts of state government, and to cut funding for the Hawaii Tourism Authority.
Ige said he is “really disappointed” the Legislature chose to pass a bill to reduce funding for HTA from $79 million to $60 million next year, and to cut off the flow of hotel tax revenues to HTA.
HTA developed destination management action plans to find ways to reduce the impact of mass tourism on local communities, and the budget cut imposed by the Legislature will make it harder to execute those plans, Ige said.
“How do you create programs if you’ve got to come back for money every year?” Ige asked. “It’s something that will create a huge challenge.”
Ige also questioned the wisdom of the reorganization effort, including House Bill 862, which would abolish the Office of Aerospace Development and transfer the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems from the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism to the University of Hawaii Hilo.
Another bill would move the state Land Use Commission from DBEDT to the renamed Office of Planning and Sustainable Development, while yet another bill would rename the state Office of Environmental Quality Control and also move it to the Office of Planning.
Ige said he hasn’t seen evidence yet that shuffling of agencies within state government will save money, and it raises personnel issues and other complications.
Normally that sort of reorganization would involve a process that includes an assessment of the benefits and consultation with the public worker unions, he said.
“It’s easy to just on paper or in the budget move people around, but it does have significant impact on the employees,” he said. “We’ve looked at those, and I’m not exactly certain what benefit they would see from the reorganization.”
But overall, Ige said the session “got to the important issues,” the most important being the new two-year state budget.
The federal government provided $600 million in support to the Department of Education and the University of Hawaii system in addition to $1.6 billion in direct aid to the state. That federal money financed rent relief programs, food security funding, child care and “all the things that we care about,” Ige said.
“The federal government came through,” Ige said. “They really are providing much needed relief to the state budget in a way that’s helpful this time, and so it made a difference — it made a huge difference.”
The governor will have until June 22 to decide what to keep and what to veto.
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