Legislative leaders want to direct $1 billion set aside for the state’s rainy day fund toward various social services, including some programs to benefit homeless people statewide.

House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi talked briefly about some of their priorities for the next legislative session during a segment of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight” program.

In December, Gov. David Ige announced a $16.9 billion budget proposal bolstered by an increase in tax collections last year. Ige proposed stashing $1 billion away in the state’s reserve fund to prepare for future fiscal crises.

Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki watch a large screen tv as Governor Ige gives the State of State address.
Senate President Ron Kouchi, left, and House Speaker Scott Saiki, right, want money set aside for the rainy day fund to pay for social services instead. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

On Tuesday, state Budget Director Craig Hirai defended the Ige administration’s decision to tuck money away in the state’s piggy bank. He warned lawmakers that Hawaii should expect less in relief funds from the federal government in coming years.

He said depositing $1 billion into the rainy day fund, which holds about $350 million now, would build “a strong reserve for the future.”

“As we’ve seen, unexpected things like omicron have snuck up on us,” Hirai said. “The economic effects of that will have to be sorted out during the session.”

But Saiki and Kouchi are calling for the money to go elsewhere. Saiki said he doesn’t think the governor’s rainy day proposal will “survive the legislative process this year.”

“What we need to do is to use these extra tax revenues to fund these needs that are unmet, and that have suffered in past years,” Saiki said. “We should fix things that need to be fixed now with this additional tax revenue.”

Kouchi said some of those funds should be put toward continuing programs like Ohana Zones, which provide homeless people with basic services. The goal is to move them into permanent housing.

The program is set to expire in 2023, but the administration may ask for $15 million to continue it through 2026.

Funding transitional housing and alternative housing options for homeless individuals should also be a budget priority, Kouchi said. That money could also go toward developing more affordable housing units in the state.

“The homeless situation has only gotten worse during the pandemic,” Kouchi said. “We need to make that kind of (financial) commitment.”

Rep. Nadine Nakamura, chairwoman of the House Housing Committee, plans to introduce a slew of bills seeking to address those issues.

“There’s a whole continuum of housing that we need to focus on, from extremely low, to lower income, moderate income, workforce and market housing,” Nakamura said in an interview.

HomeAid Hawaii Opens Doors at Kama’okū.
Lawmakers are already looking for housing programs that could benefit from an influx of state cash. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Tapping unused federal block grants to give money to families in need, expanding Ohana Zones and diverting funds to build more rental housing are among the proposals.

“I think the governor’s budget is going to be looked at for how we might want to spend the funds, to help some families who may need it,” Nakamura said.

The Legislature will also be contending with other issues this session, which starts Jan. 19.

Kouchi and Saiki plan to revisit bills that seek to limit the governor’s emergency powers. Saiki said proposals would allow the Legislature to vote down emergency proclamations or parts of those proclamations after a certain amount of time has passed.

Doing so would require a two-thirds vote in both the 51-seat House and 25-member Senate.

The pair of legislative leaders are also still grappling with a recent Hawaii Supreme Court ruling that ended the practice of gutting the contents of bills and replacing them with completely different language, sometimes late in session and with little warning.

Saiki said he agrees with the court ruling and feels the public should be able to keep track of how bills change as they move through the Legislature. However, he noted instances that may be more difficult with the court ruling.

“There are times when there is an emergency, and we have to amend a bill to address an emergency,” Saiki said. “I think we’ll have to figure out how to handle that going forward.”

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