Gov. David Ige signed into law a slew of progressive legislation on Wednesday that caps interest rates for short-term loans, mandates reporting of financial abuse against older adults and gets rid of a state law that allowed disabled people to be paid less than minimum wage.

The Democratic governor also designated January as a month to honor survivors of the Kalaupapa leprosy colony on Molokai, in addition to signing a bill to recognize June 19 as Juneteenth.

“It is now more important and timely than ever that Hawaii stand in the acknowledgment of the African American experience here in this country,” he said, as well as “the significant roles and accomplishments of African Americans here in Hawaii and across the country.”

Hawaii is the second-to-last state to officially recognize Juneteenth. The bill signed by Ige stopped short of making Juneteenth a state holiday. But within hours of the signing ceremony, Congress approved Juneteenth as a federal holiday. President Joe Biden is expected to sign that bill into law.

Governor David Ige announces the nomination of Judge Todd Eddins to the Hawaii State Supreme Court. October 23, 2020
Gov. David Ige signed several bills aimed at addressing societal inequities on Wednesday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020

Ige addressed the presence of racism in Hawaii when asked about recent Honolulu police shootings that killed 16-year-old Iremamber Sykap and 29-year-old Lindani Myeni. Sykap was a Hawaii resident who was Pacific Islander, and Myeni was Black and had recently moved from South Africa.

“I do think that, growing up in Hawaii, racism isn’t as prevalent as it is in other states. But we still see certain populations in our community are overrepresented in our jail population as well as our prison population,” Ige said. “And we need to continue our commitment to appropriately prosecuting actions that cross the boundary.”

Racial and ethnic disparities are found not only in the state’s criminal justice system but across income levels, homeownership rates, education levels and more. Disparities have been most recently glaring in the state’s pandemic.

The governor added that the state should guard against institutionalized racism.

“Most importantly, we need to remain vigilant to protect against racism getting incorporated into our processes and procedures,” he said, adding that he looks forward to the investigation and trial of the three Honolulu police officers who shot at Sykap. One officer has been charged with murder and two others with attempted murder.

“I do know that law enforcement in our community has worked hard to reform their processes so that we can eliminate the past practices that may have been prejudicial and not been the fairest to all of those in our community,” he said.

Justin Levinson, a law professor at the University of Hawaii, said measuring racism across society is difficult and complex but his research suggests negative implicit bias against Black people in Hawaii is comparable to other states, while implicit bias against other groups varies.

“What we know is nuanced,” he said. Hawaii residents have positive associations with Japanese Americans, while Levinson noted anti-Asian implicit bias is well-documented on the mainland.

Meanwhile, anti-Micronesian and anti-Black sentiment persist in Hawaii, Levinson said.

“People here have much stronger negative implicit bias against Micronesians (compared with the mainland),” he said. “I’ve done several studies myself on anti-Blackness here and on the mainland and no significant differences have yet to emerge.”

Bills Signed Into Law

Three other bills that Ige signed into law Wednesday were aimed at improving disparities affecting older adults, people with disabilities and low-income Hawaii residents who rely on payday lenders.

The state is phasing out payday loans and requiring lenders to switch to a new kind of short-term installment loan next year that will charge consumers less. Currently, Hawaii payday lenders can charge interest that, once annualized, may be as high as 459%.

The new law will cap the annual interest rate at 36% plus certain limited fees based on the loan amount.

The state also eliminated a law that allowed companies to pay people with disabilities less than the state minimum wage.

Sen. Joy San Buenaventura said at the Wednesday press conference that in researching the bill, she couldn’t find any companies who were taking advantage of that exemption. Still, she and other lawmakers praised the change. Rep. Richard Onishi called the previous law outdated and discriminatory.

The governor said the bill “would restore equity, dignity and respect into our state’s wage laws.”

Ige also signed a bill aimed at protecting older adults from financial abuse. The law requires investment advisers and others to report suspected financial exploitation of kupuna and gives qualified immunity for good faith reporting.

Hawaii joins 28 other jurisdictions who have adopted that policy, Ige said.

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