The past year was a time of astonishing political foment on the mainland, with Black Lives Matter protests demanding law enforcement reforms and an abrupt shift to a liberal, activist government with the election of President Joe Biden.

But the Hawaii Legislature remained locked in a Capitol building that was closed to the public during the pandemic, and its leaders behaved as if they couldn’t hear all the noise outside.

Hawaii activists made online pleas for dramatic change in areas such as criminal justice, tax policy and the impact of tourism, but almost none of that will become law this year. As for social services, it was the federal government that provided real relief for Hawaii’s working families.

To be fair, the Legislature was confronted by a monstrous state budget shortfall at the start of the session that threatened critically needed health care and social welfare programs in the midst of a pandemic. At risk was funding for sexual abuse treatment, HIV infection prevention and much more.

But by early March it was quite clear the federal government would come to the rescue with an unprecedented bailout. In the end, the federal aid totaled an astonishing $1.6 billion for the state and another $600 million for Hawaii’s public schools and university system.

Senator J. Kalani English House is greeted by House members waiting to go into the Senate chambers.
Sen. J. Kalani English, who retired on Saturday, is greeted by House members at the close of session Thursday. Critics say lawmakers took a conservative approach to the issues before it this year. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

By the close of the session Thursday, lawmakers boasted they had enough money left over after digesting that federal aid to tuck away $250 million in the state’s “rainy day” budget reserve fund to gird the state for the next budget crisis.

The Legislature also took the unprecedented step of earmarking more than $700 million to repay the federal government for funding for unemployment benefits. That debt is actually the responsibility of Hawaii’s employers.

House Democratic Majority Leader Della Au Belatti praised the work of the Legislature this year under difficult conditions and a tight schedule because the traditional 60-day session was shortened by one week.

“Real leadership tackles difficult problems and comes up with solutions that have meaningful impacts,” Belatti told her colleagues in a floor speech on Thursday. “Because of this House, we have tackled structural and regulatory reform, and achieved meaningful change that will improve people’s lives.”

‘Treading Water’

In spite of clear accomplishments, critics say there are plenty of areas in which lawmakers fell short.

Pleas from progressive Democrats and labor unions to raise the state minimum wage, waive state income taxes on unemployment benefits and shift more of the state tax burden to Hawaii’s wealthiest residents were all unsuccessful. Most of those proposals died in the House.

“I would say we’re kind of treading water,” Gavin Thornton, of the Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said. “There’s definitely good stuff that happened. The best is that we’re not drowning.”

Thornton credited lawmakers with passing a measure to end the payday loans by 2022 and creating a fund to give state grants to nonprofit affordable housing developers. He also cited a measure to bring various stakeholders together to find a way to prevent mass evictions once a moratorium ends in June.

It also was critical, Thornton said, that lawmakers used federal relief funds to save many social services programs including the sexual abuse treatment center and HIV programs.

Lawmakers did tinker with tax policy but chose to pursue the low-risk strategy of slapping new or increased taxes on Hawaii’s tourists, who obviously won’t be voting in Hawaii elections.

And while there was much discussion of ways to reshape the swollen tourism industry to make it more palatable to Hawaii residents, lawmakers were obviously more focused on helping the industry to reopen and rebound from the damage done by the pandemic.

“We are not on a better path now and we are not on a path to greater health either,” Thornton said. “I think we recognized this would be a tough and dangerous situation for Hawaii. But a lot of people hoped it would be the catalyst for significant changes to address long term problems facing Hawaii’s people. I really don’t feel like we saw anything coming out of this session that would help us gain ground there.”

Empty gallery with the last day of the House floor Session.
The House closed out the session Thursday below an empty gallery. The Capitol was again closed for this session because of the pandemic. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Malia Hill, director of policy for the more conservative Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, felt the same way. Her organization was glad to see most tax increases fail, and she welcomed Senate Bill 348, which allows local beverage companies to package water in aluminum cans instead of plastic water bottles. Hill said that, in the interim before the 2022 session begins in January, lawmakers should find ways to remove barriers to businesses.

But overall, she said the Legislature fell short of enacting more needed government reforms.

“You’d expect a real pointed response after a pandemic and the lockdown,” Hill said. “It felt (like) the Legislature punted on issues that just called out for action.”

She was disappointed to see several affordable housing measures go down the drain, including proposals to allow a block of residents to vote to increase housing density and another to allow fourplex dwellings on lots zoned for single family homes.

She criticized lawmakers’ decision in the last week of session to kill a bill that would have clamped down on the governor’s emergency powers and required legislative approval for any extension of emergency periods. She also decried the failure to overhaul the state’s forfeiture system, which allows police to seize assets such as cars after making arrests and sell them off even when the owners are never convicted of a crime.

“It was a very rough session for justice,” said Kat Brady, coordinator of the Community Alliance on Prisons. She added that many bills died because of inaction in the House or disagreement from House lawmakers.

Lawmakers also scrapped proposals to require release of more low-risk, nonviolent inmates from jail without bail; and to ban large-capacity rifle magazines or impose other new gun control measures that were introduced after the murders of two Honolulu police officers.

No Real Police Reform

The Senate did advance a proposal to require that the state build a new Oahu jail, even as advocates and a state corrections oversight commission called on officials to hold off on that plan.

That measure was later amended in the House to fund the Hawaii Correctional Systems Oversight Commission, a move corrections reformers have been seeking since 2019. Funding for a new jail was not part of that bill.

Critics said lawmakers completely dropped the ball on any meaningful police reform efforts.

The Legislature failed to advance bills to make a shootings review board permanent, to ban chokeholds statewide, to allow citizens to record police activities and to collect more data on arrests and use of force.

Other measures that failed would have banned the use of military-style equipment by police and required officers to report misconduct by other officers. Another measure that failed would have banned the use of no-knock warrants whereby officers gain entry to a residence without announcing their presence first.

The only measure dealing with police that cleared the Legislature this year would close a loophole that allowed an ex-Honolulu police officer to get just a 14-day stint in jail for allegedly groping a teenager at a traffic stop in 2014.

‘Not A Progressive State’

Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Institute at the University of Hawaii Manoa, said he believes lawmakers responded to their sense of the dominant sentiment in the local community.

“Politicians for the most part are incredibly paranoid people who keep their ear to the ground,” he said. “So, they must feel like there isn’t enough support for a true progressive agenda that they would be concerned that these would become voting issues for their constituents.”

“It does go to show how different Hawaii politics is from mainland politics,” Moore said. “My favorite line about politics here is always that ‘Hawaii is a Democratic state, it’s not a progressive state.

Senate President Ron Kouchi walks into senate floor with left, House Speaker Scott Saiki. House adjourned and walked over to the Senate side and greeted Senator English before the Senater reconvened.
House Speaker Scott Saiki (left) and Senate President Ron Kouchi on the Senate floor Thursday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

There is quite a bit of evidence that suggests lawmakers’ political calculus may be correct.

Every major leader in the state is essentially a political centrist — from the governor to county mayors to the congressional delegation to the top leaders in the state House and Senate, Moore said.

And Moore noted the voters have been offered various versions of the progressive agenda, and usually declined.

One example was Deputy Public Defender Jacquie Esser, who campaigned for Honolulu prosecutor last year on dramatic plans to reform the criminal justice system, including a pledge to stop charging people for drug possession.

She received more than 47,000 votes but finished third in the primary election with only about 17% of the total.

Still, there is some sort of gravitational tug to the left in Hawaii politics. It has been on display at times at the Legislature, even if it doesn’t often prevail.

Some key lawmakers including House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke describe themselves as progressives, and Gov. David Ige joined House and Senate leaders at a press conference last year to announce a strikingly liberal game plan for the 2020 session.

It was an election year, and political observers noted that House Speaker Scott Saiki faced a well-funded primary challenge from the well-known progressive Kim Coco Iwamoto.

The House-Senate agenda that year featured an increase in the state minimum wage to $13 an hour, a new refundable earned income tax credit for lower income working families, and other dramatic initiatives such as developing leasehold affordable housing on state lands.

That agenda evaporated as the pandemic descended on Hawaii in the months that followed, and lawmakers never put most of those proposals back into play this year.

Ige backed the leasehold housing idea in his State of the State address this year, but it went nowhere. The Senate proposed increasing the state minimum wage from the current $10.10 an hour to $12, but that idea failed in the House.

Senate President Ron Kouchi said moving a minimum wage bill and paid family leave are still priorities.

“Hopefully we’ll be in a much better financial situation where we can have agreement on what the elements should be,” he said at a press conference Thursday, adding that a paid family leave program could be piloted on Kauai first.

Kouchi also said the Senate has more work to do in regards to police and prison reform, but didn’t offer specific details on what proposals might crop up next session.

“You try to figure out what didn’t work and how we can get back to the drawing board,” he said. “I’d like to have a good positive dialogue with the speaker and have the conversation to be about what we accomplished and how do we get to the ones we didn’t achieve. I won’t start pointing fingers and have them say, ‘the Senate killed this.’ It’s not going to be productive.”

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