Gov. David Ige said the state should push forward with plans for universal preschool for Hawaii’s children, and also used his annual State of the State address Monday to propose tax refunds of $100 for each of Hawaii’s taxpayers and their dependents.

House and Senate lawmakers said they will consider the tax refund proposal, but stopped short of actually endorsing the idea. Ige said the refunds would cost $110 million.

In a briefing for reporters after his eighth and final State of the State speech, Ige also said he supports plans to increase the state minimum wage from $10.10 per hour to $18, and lawmakers are quickly moving ahead with that idea.

Senate Bill 2018, which would increase the minimum wage to $18 per hour by 2026, won preliminary approval from the Senate Labor, Culture and the Arts Committee on Monday. The committee vote was unanimous.

The governor has been generally stoic in his public appearances as his administration has coped with a series of disasters during his two terms, including the years-long pandemic. But his voice broke with emotion Monday near the close of his speech.

“I am proud of the work we do, and I am proud, proud to be your governor,” Ige said.

The speech was delivered online from his fifth floor offices in the State Capitol. He is term limited, and will leave office in December.

Gov. David Ige delivered his final State of the State address on Monday from his fifth floor offices in the State Capitol, which is closed to the public. The normally stoic governor became emotional as he told listeners, “I am proud, proud to be your governor.” Screenshot/2022

Normally the State of the State address is an opportunity for political and business leaders to gather and mingle, but the Capitol has now been closed to the public for almost two years. House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi listened to Ige’s address from the nearly empty House chamber Monday.

Ige praised state residents’ response to the “unprecedented changes and challenges” of the pandemic, suggesting that Hawaii was true to its sense of ohana, or family, and community.

“I see a Hawaii that has been tested and tested over and over and again during this pandemic,” he said. “We may have bent but we did not break. I believe in Hawaii, in its people, and in its purpose.”

Preschool And Child Care

The proposal for universal preschool was part of a package of bills that Ige and state lawmakers announced in 2020 shortly before the pandemic took hold, and Ige said it was one of the most important initiatives that were sidelined by the crisis.

“We can’t leave it there, because research tells us that early learning is crucial in preparing our children for school, and life in general,” he said.

Ige said there is much work to be done on that front, in part because child care operations have been “devastated” by the pandemic. He told reporters he plans to work with lawmakers and child care providers “to really think through what’s the best way to expand.”

Ige said he does not have a specific budget for the initiative or a specific number of child care slots he intends to fund this year.

Kouchi said he is generally supportive of the governor’s proposal to give $100 to each taxpayer. “That, I know, would go a long way for those who are living paycheck to paycheck,” he said.

Saiki said the idea of a $100 refund fits well with the House’s desire to provide relief to working families, “so it’s something that we will definitely put on our radar screen and consider, and we’ll see if we can factor that into the state budget this year.”

As for the universal preschool proposal, House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said the plan before the pandemic was to establish a universal program by 2030. The money to do that evaporated as the state shut down in response to the virus.

“We will again be picking up where we left off,” she said.

One issue is helping preschools to build capacity, and the federal government will provide a “substantial” sum for workforce development and training for teachers, she said.

The House floor was nearly empty as House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi listened to Gov. David Ige’s final State of the State speech Monday. Kevin Dayton/Civil Beat/2022

 

Expanding Broadband

Ige also pitched development of broadband infrastructure as a major part of his agenda this year, an initiative that will be launched with the help of more than $400 million the state expects to receive in federal funding.

The governor said his administration has named the broadband initiative “Apakau Ka La,” or “spreading of the sun’s rays,” and described it as “critical infrastructure for the future connecting all of the main Hawaiian Islands.”

But Kouchi and other Senate and House leaders said they are still waiting for more details on many of the governor’s proposals, including that plan to beef up the state’s broadband infrastructure.

“Where are we deploying (broadband)?” Kouchi asked. “Are we good in the middle mile? Is it the last mile? Is it towers, as opposed to fiber optics? And if it’s a combination, what would that be?”

“We want to take into account many of the proposals by the governor, but at the same time, honor some of the things that we have committed to doing this year.” — Rep. Sylvia Luke

Senate Majority Leader Dru Kanuha is glad the governor also wants to prioritize funding for housing, but said the state isn’t moving fast enough to build more units. Ige has proposed building 3,000 more units over the course of the next year.

That number “definitely isn’t enough to push the button on making sure that the people in our communities have a place to live,” Kanuha said.

The Senate is also hoping to put more money toward infrastructure upgrades, like roads and water connections on state lands in an effort to entice developers to build affordable housing there.

An example, Kouchi said, would be to use some of the lands that the state already owns surrounding the University of Hawaii West Oahu campus for housing projects. The idea is to cut down costs for developers so they keep all housing units in a particular project at affordable levels and don’t try to flip them to market rate to recoup funds that would otherwise be lost on lower rents.

The House, meanwhile, is focused on its plan to provide $600 million to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to provide affordable housing for Hawaiians.

“At the end of the session, we want to take into account many of the proposals by the governor, but at the same time, honor some of the things that we have committed to doing this year,” Luke said.

Saiki said he was also disappointed that Ige did not have more to say about the Red Hill Bulk Fuel Storage Facility. Jet fuel from that facility contaminated the drinking water of thousands of military families.

During his speech Ige said that “draining the fuel tanks at Red Hill is a good first step. But we must work to find long-term solutions. National security cannot come at the expense of our people’s health. I believe we can protect both national security and public health, but it will take determination and the collective efforts of everyone.”

Saiki said the House is pushing for the Red Hill facility to be drained and decommissioned, but Ige didn’t go that far.

“The governor’s speech today only mentioned defueling. It did not take a position on the decommissioning of the facility,” Saiki said. “The House has made it very clear that we want Red Hill to be defueled and decommissioned.”

Civil Beat reporter Blaze Lovell contributed to this report.

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