Labor advocates and minimum-wage workers may have a lot to cheer for during this legislative session, which opened Wednesday.

A proposal put forward by House Speaker Scott Saiki would eventually raise the minimum wage in Hawaii from the current $10.10 an hour to $18 an hour. Details on that minimum wage proposal are yet to be seen.

Hawaii’s minimum wage last increased from $9.25 to $10.10 an hour in 2018. Lawmakers failed to raise the minimum wage in 2019, 2020 and 2021.

“I stated publicly that the House would revisit a wage proposal when conditions improved,” Saiki said. “Well, conditions have improved, and it is now time for us to act.”

Speaker Scott Saiki addresses colleagues on the opening day of the 2022 legislative session.
House Speaker Scott is supporting a higher minimum wage in Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Noting that tax collections have rebounded, Saiki said the Legislature feels comfortable in shifting focus from prioritizing emergency relief funds to initiatives focused on improving on-going concerns for residents, such as low wages. A minimum wage proposal would be paired with others to help Hawaii families.

Saiki said the House also plans to advance measures that would increase a food tax credit for low-income families and make the Earned Income Tax Credit refundable and permanent.

Normally, that income tax credit would be deducted from the amount of taxes someone owes the state. Under this new proposal, if a taxpayer receives a tax credit that exceeds the amount of his tax liability, the excess amount will be directly refunded to the taxpayer.

The food and excise tax meanwhile would help taxpayers making less than $50,000 annually, providing them with a credit of $150 per household member.

The goal of the tax credits is to support community members who qualify under the low-income classification of ALICE  households. ALICE stands for Asset Limited, Income Constrained and Employed. 

There are 148,771 ALICE households in the state, which make up 33% of Hawaii residents, with 9% of those households considered below the poverty level, according to Aloha United Way.

“People under ALICE are still being challenged by cost of living, child care and cost of food,” Rep. Richard Onishi, chair of the House Labor and Tourism Committee, said. “By increasing the minimum wage, families will have the ability to build assets and to have enough income to survive in Hawaii.”

— Christian Navarro

Lawmakers Unveil Funding Plans For Affordable Housing

Funding for affordable housing is also topping the legislative agenda this year.

Lawmakers want to direct about $600 million to the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands while also considering proposals to increase the availability of housing units across the state.

Republican Rep. Gene Ward minced no words, saying that Wednesday would become a commemorative day for the people of Hawaii due to the Legislature’s massive commitment to returning homelands to indigenous people. 

“This is a day that’s going to go down in history as marking a turning point for a hundred years of neglect, to facing it straight on,” Ward said during the state’s opening session. “For all of us, this is a day we can really fulfill a promise that we’ve given, but we’ve broken, and now we’re going to turn the tides.”

Legislators from both the House and the Senate said that providing Native Hawaiians with access to affordable housing is one of the highest priorities in this year’s legislative process. But the dollar amount of the investment, $600 million, led to applause in the House chamber. 

Ward said that the proposed investment is going to help reduce the number of beneficiaries waiting for homestead lands. There are currently 28,000 on the DHHL waitlist to acquire an affordable home. Ward urged his colleagues to get behind this proposal and keep their promise to the Hawaiian community.

“An investment of $600 million toward the implementation of the Hawaiian Homes Commission Act would be a historic infusion of resources to address the needs of potentially thousands of beneficiaries on the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands Waiting List,” DHHL Chairman William Aila said in a written statement. “DHHL continues to be open to all measures that would return native Hawaiians to the land, as intended by Prince Kuhio. We appreciate this legislature for hearing our calls for funding and their commitment to fulfilling the state’s obligation to our community.”

Aerial view of Molokai DHHL Hawaiian Homestead land near the Molokai Airport with some patches of green growth.
Lawmakers backed plans to provide the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands with $600 million to develop housing. Cory Lum/Civil /2021

The lack of affordable housing continues to be a major factor that’s driving Hawaii residents, including Native Hawaiians, to leave the state. According to the latest U.S. Census Bureau, Hawaii was ranked fourth highest in population decline. In the past five years the state has seen a loss of about 30,000 residents.

Researchers from the Hawaii Public Housing Authority found that in the past five years, the state has funded about 4,000 “affordable” units on Oahu. Another 500 units are in the works, but that is less than 10% of the amount projected to match the need. 

A 2019 study by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism found that Oahu alone needed 5,200 units per year for five years in order to meet the demand for low-income housing. 

Besides appropriating funding for the construction of more housing units, Sen. Sharon Moriwaki said that legislators are also helping those on the other end of the spectrum with rental supplement programs. 

The rent supplement program is a state-funded program that helps eligible families pay for part of their monthly rent. Each family is required to pay at least 30% of their adjusted family income. The difference between that amount and the total monthly rent, up to a maximum of $250 per month, is paid directly to the owner or their agent. 

In order to qualify for this program families must rent a properly sized unit, provide reasonable assurance that they can pay for their rent on time, and not have outstanding debts to the Hawaii Public Housing Authority or own a majority interest in a dwelling unit on the same island in which they seek rental supplement assistance.

— Charleston Cazimero

A Push For Ag Jobs On Molokai

While larger islands tend to hog the stage at the legislative session every year, Molokai’s elected officials said they are ready to confront the issues of chronic unemployment that the Friendly Isle has been battling for decades by returning their focus to the land.

Historically, Molokai has had the highest unemployment rate in the state of Hawaii. In October 2021, Molokai’s unemployment rate reached 12%, according to a report from the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. This was higher than the statewide average of 6.4% and more than double the national average of 4.6% that month.

“Molokai is a community of people that are very humble and respectful,” Sen. Lynn DeCoite said. “But it’s gotten to the point where they really want jobs and want those jobs to allow them to have their own housing.” 

DeCoite said Molokai citizens have rejected ideas of bringing in outside businesses and development to serve as a solution to unemployment. In the past, Molokai residents have opposed measures to develop projects that would produce jobs, such as building 200 luxury homes on Molokai Ranch, and more recently Big Wind, a 200-megawatt wind farm that would have transferred electricity to Oahu.

One way to resolve this problem would be by supporting the farming and commercial  agriculture industry on Molokai so that residents could profit from the land they already own, DeCoite said. 

Todd Yamashita's plants that he is farming on a small plot of land next to his residence on Molokai.
Molokai lawmakers are backing plans to create more jobs in the agricultural industry. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

“Agriculture has always been on Molokai. It’s a matter of if you’re willing to make that investment into agriculture,” DeCoite, who is also a farmer, said. “It’s a matter of if you have a market for the type of agriculture that you want to do.”

With a quarter of the island’s lands set aside for DHHL, Keani Rawlins-Fernandez, Vice Chair of the Maui County Council, says irrigation rights for farmers and Molokai citizens should be considered during the 2022 legislative session.

“The Molokai Irrigation System was built to support homestead farmers. And so I and many beneficiaries would like to see the management of MIS go to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands instead of the Department of Agriculture,” Rawlins-Fernandez said.

Rawlins-Fernandez also thinks that by supporting the community co-op for renewable energy on the island, jobs will in turn become available. 

“The project can, as much as possible, be built, designed and maintained by people in the community,” Rawlins-Fernandez said.

— Krista Rados

Proposal Would Expand Access To Mental Health care

State lawmakers are looking to beef up Hawaii’s mental health workforce with a proposal this year that would allow graduate students and recent college graduates to earn money while working under licensed professionals in the field. 

They’d do that while also working to fulfill licensing requirements to practice in Hawaii.

A proposal from Sen. Laura Acasio would aim to improve the quality of mental health care and maintain a locally-educated workforce.

The measure also seeks to address the shortage of mental health care professionals in Hawaii, which some studies have suggested has the highest percentage of adults with untreated mental illness in the nation.

“What we’re hearing from the providers is that there is so much more demand than they can fulfill,” Acasio said. “And so they would like to be able to work with graduate, post-graduate, post-doctorate folks who are pursuing their licenses in different mental health fields, so that they can collectively take on more clients.”

Hawaii State Capitol.
A proposal to train more mental health professionals could also get attention this session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2021

Increased support for mental health care services was announced as one of the priorities for this upcoming legislative session by Senate President Ronald Kouchi. 

Recent data gathered by Mental Health In America showed that 67% of Hawaii’s adults with mental illness go without treatment, although the vast majority of these adults are insured. 

Acasio’s bill, if passed, would apply to students studying in the fields of social work, psychology and marriage and family counseling.  

“You graduated from (the University of Hawaii) with a psychology degree, and you have a year’s worth of time that you need to accrue hours,” Acasio said. “But if it’s not paid, it’s hard to raise your family. And so oftentimes folks leave to do it in another state, where they can get paid for it.”

The bill, which is expected to be introduced next week, would be similar to laws already implemented in Washington state and California.

Kouchi highlighted the importance of mental health care during his opening day speech Wednesday.

“In the pandemic, being cooped up, being locked down, not having social interaction and contact; the stress of the inability to pay bills and support our families has only added more stress,” Kouchi said. “And we need to support mental health services.”

— Linsey Dower

Space Program Asks For More Funds

The Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems is asking the Legislature for $550,00 to help restore and expand the aerospace development program for this upcoming fiscal year after five of the office’s employees were laid off last year, according to PISCES spokesman Christopher Yoakum. 

After being transferred from the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism following a special session of the Legislature last year, PISCES reopened under the administration of the University of Hawaii Hilo in October.

However, a “clerical oversight” prevented funds from being transferred to UH Hilo to pay for the program, according to UH budget documents. The university is asking lawmakers to fix that error.

Funding will help provide staff salaries, pay undergraduate interns who work on research projects, robotics development and expenses, such as office space and materials. 

“The materials side of the budget is largely focused on applied research for In-Situ Resource Utilization technology using Hawaii volcanic basalt,” Yoakum said. 

ISRU involves using material found in space to advance space-based exploration, according to NASA.

Yoakum is one of only two employees who has worked with the agency since 2014. He works alongside PISCES’ Program Manager Christian Andersen.

A state agency charged with providing education in space exploration is asking lawmakers for a budget increase. NASA/JPL-Caltech/2019

“We hope to hire an administrator and technician once funding is restored,” said Yoakum. “At present, we are severely limited in our capacity to implement some of our projects due to the budget error.” 

Since 2013, PISCES has employed more than 50 Hawaii-based undergraduate students in aerospace projects related to materials science, planetary geology, robotics and computer science. 

Programs such as the Women’s STARS Program offer opportunities for high school students to explore their interests in space exploration, astronomy and other STEM fields. 

“We want to encourage innovation and entrepreneurship across the universities,” UH President David Lassner said on Tuesday, during a meeting with the Senate’s Higher Education committee. “Astronomy is certainly a competitive edge for us.” 

Lassner has served as a member of the PISCES Board of Directors since 2013. 

The University of Hawaii and Gov. Ige have both proposed a budget of $550,000 for the program. 

Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, who chairs the Senate committee on Higher Education, is open to the idea of funding the PISCES program and plans to consider those proposals in her committee, Jacob Aki, a Senate spokesman, said Wednesday.

In addition to focusing on economic development projects in aerospace, PISCES hopes to increase emphasis on workforce development and applied research to better prepare their undergraduates and other young adults for the future. 

“PISCES plans to expand and diversify paid internship opportunities for undergrad students in a variety of fields in aerospace including engineering, programming, and planetary geology,” Yoakum said. “We will continue our applied research in ISRU and work as a liaison and promoter of aerospace projects in Hawaii to benefit the State and our keiki.”

— Alyssa Rodello

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