Hawaii lawmakers moved ahead with plans to dramatically increase the state minimum wage to $18 an hour after a stirring House floor debate Tuesday, and gave tentative approval to what would be a historic investment in housing for Native Hawaiians.

The House also approved a measure to overhaul management of Mauna Kea by taking control of the mountain away from the University of Hawaii and giving Hawaiians and cultural practitioners more say over what many consider to be a sacred site.

House and Senate lawmakers gave preliminary approval to those measures and more than 500 others as the Legislature approaches a key deadline this week at the midpoint of the 2022 session.

Bills that fail to win preliminary approval in either the House or the Senate by Thursday’s firm “crossover” deadline likely will die for this year, although lawmakers have been known to manipulate their rules and procedures in the past to resurrect measures later in the session if they are deemed to be particularly important.

Tuesday also marked the return of demonstrators to the State Capitol, which reopened to the public on Monday after two years of being mostly closed because of Covid-19. Rallies were held to support minimum wage increases to oppose the planned Thirty Meter Telescope on Hawaii island.

Living Wage supporters rally at the Capitol Rotunda.
Living Wage supporters rallied Tuesday at the State Capitol as lawmakers debated a proposal to increase wages to $18 an hour by 2028. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The minimum wage bill triggered some emotional debate in the House, where Republican Rep. Lauren Matsumoto tearfully described the impact the bill would have on her family’s egg farm in Wahiawa. That farm was founded 112 years ago by her great-grandfather.

Matsumoto said her mother works 12 hours or more daily to keep the business running, “but we operate on razor-thin margins, as many farmers do.” The price of egg cartons and imported chicken feed have soared, and given the unrest in the world today, that will only get worse, she told her colleagues.

House Bill 2510 would increase the state minimum wage in a series of steps from $10.10 per hour today to $18 per hour in 2028. Matsumoto said that would force her family to cut half of the labor force on their farm. Some of the farm employees have worked there for 30 years, she said.

Lawmakers often talk about supporting Hawaii agriculture, “but more realistically, if this bill passes we will have to shut our doors within the next two years,” Matsumoto said. “Once a farm goes out of business, they’re not going to start up again. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

Democratic Rep. Jeanne Kapela also opposed the bill, but she argued that the measure was too stingy. “This measure still falls short of what working families truly deserve,” she said.

The last series of increases in the state minimum wage from 2014 to 2018 did not trigger any huge loss of jobs, Kapela said. In fact, the number of people employed by small businesses grew by 3% during those years, while the number of small businesses in Hawaii grew by 8%, she said.

“When we hear people from the business community or from the restaurant industry saying that creating a living wage will lead to job losses, we know that, too, is a lie,” Kapela told her House colleagues.

The proposed minimum wage increase passed the House on Tuesday in a 43-8 vote. Voting against the measure were Democratic Reps. Stacelynn Eli, Kapela, Sam Kong, Amy Perruso, Sean Quinlan and Roy Takumi. Republicans Matsumoto and Gene Ward also voted against the bill.

It’s uncertain if the House and Senate will be able to agree on a minimum wage increase this year. The two chambers have failed to do so for the last three years.

Senate President Ron Kouchi during first floor session open to the public since the Capitol was closed down due to Covid-19.
It’s still not clear if the House and Senate will agree on a minimum wage increase this year. Senate President Ron Kouchi said the Senate still needs to hear from advocates on the issue. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Senate President Ron Kouchi and others seemed displeased that the House refused to hear Senate Bill 2018, which would raise wages to $18 an hour by 2026 — two years sooner than the House version. The measure moved over to the House in January but has sat idle since.

Kouchi indicated that the Senate may amend the House bill to reflect the Senate’s draft. He said the Senate still needs to hear from advocates on the issue.

“If there is some concern that the House and Senate wind up disagreeing and (workers) end up getting no increase – then where is that compromise? I think that would come out in the testimony and communication we will receive in the next several weeks,” Kouchi said.

Tony Dorono is co-executive director of a new group called the Hawaii Workers Center, which focuses on advocating for Filipino immigrants and Pacific Islanders who live and work in Hawaii through treaties known as the compacts of free association.

The agreements between the U.S. and three nations — Palau, the Marshall Islands and the Federated States of Micronesia — give the U.S. strategic denial rights over those countries’ lands, waters and airspace. As part of the deal, citizens of compact nations can work in the U.S. indefinitely without visas, and many come for jobs, education and health care.

The group is also supporting a wage increase. Its organizers, many of whom earn the minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, coalesced around advocating for higher wages for workers, Dorono said.

“We need someone who can represent them and enable these workers to get organized,” Dorono said.

Hawaiian Lands

Both the House and Senate on Tuesday approved measures to pump $600 million into the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to accelerate the development of housing for Native Hawaiians, a measure that Rep. Daniel Holt estimated would provide affordable housing for 30,000 people.

“We have a long way to go, but Mr. Speaker, I’m very proud to stand here on this floor, taking this step forward to help make an impact and bring those people off (the Hawaiian Homes waitlist),” he said.

House Bill 2511 to provide that money to DHHL passed unanimously in the House.

House members also attempted to address another contentious Hawaiian issue by giving preliminary approval to House Bill 2024, which would overhaul the management of Mauna Kea on the Big Island.

That mountain is considered sacred by many Hawaiians, but is also considered the best site in the world for ground-based astronomy. A total of 13 observatories were developed in the summit area, but thousands of Hawaiians joined in a long series of protests in 2019 against plans for a massive new project known as the Thirty Meter Telescope.

The University of Hawaii has managed much of the mountain for decades under a 65-year state lease, but critics say that the university historically has done a poor job of caring for the land. They point to a long record of mismanagement.

HB 2024 would remove the university from management of Mauna Kea, and transfer that responsibility to a panel made up mostly of Native Hawaiians.

“Through this bill I’m seeking a path forward that provides for a substantive role for Native Hawaiians in decision-making about the management of Mauna Kea, and a stable future for astronomy on Mauna Kea,” said Rep. David Tarnas, a co-sponsor of the bill.

“I hear from opponents of the bill that the future of astronomy is endangered with this bill. I respond by saying that this new management authority will need to decide about future leases for the existing observatories, and for any new observatory that is proposed for the mauna,” Tarnas said.

“Personally, I hope that the observatories will be allowed to continue to operate on Mauna Kea for many, many years to come, and continue the great discoveries that they are providing to all of us on Earth,” he added.

The House approved HB 2024 in a 46-5 vote, with a dozen lawmakers expressing some reservations about the bill while voting for it anyway.

Senate Focused On Women’s Health

Although the Senate advanced hundreds of bills on Tuesday, there was little discussion on most measures. However, a handful of bills got special attention from the Senate Women’s Caucus.

menstruate period poverty mai movement
A bill that requires the DOE to provide menstrual products to students cleared the Senate. Courtesy: Sarah Kern/2022

Those include proposals that would give free menstrual products to public school students as well as others aimed at bettering the treatment of women inmates in the state.

“We know that by improving the lives of women, we improve the lives of our families and strengthen our communities,” Senate Vice President Michelle Kidani said during a press conference following the Senate floor session.

Senate Bill 2637 would fund work furlough programs for women and require the state to make those programs available to all women prisoners. Senate Bill 2640 would fund educational programs and college correspondence courses at the Women’s Community Correctional Center.

Senate Bill 3295 would create a commission tasked with overseeing the state correctional system’s treatment of women.

Many of those bills have support from the Women’s Prison Project, whose members include former Gov. Linda Lingle and former state Attorney General Margery Bronster.

Other measures would extend Medicaid coverage for new mothers and expand insurance coverage options for breast cancer screenings.

Stadium Funding Advances

Tucked into a bill that would move around a school buildings agency is a multimillion-dollar proposal to fund the construction of a new Aloha Stadium in Halawa.

Senate Bill 3334 would transfer the School Facilities Authority from the state Department of Education to the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

But it also would give the state $350 million worth of general obligation bonds to finance the new stadium development. A committee report on House Bill 2470, a companion measure to SB 3334, proposes putting the $350 million in bonds for the stadium in the state’s supplemental budget bill instead.

Last year, lawmakers slashed the stadium’s financing to $170 million.

Taxpayers will be on the hook for those bond payments in the future, and experts have warned that public financing schemes for sports and entertainment venues don’t always pay off.

But the state Department of Accounting and General Services, which has overseen planning for the redevelopment of the stadium, has argued that additional funding is necessary to work out a profitable agreement with the future stadium developer.

Three development teams are competing for a contract to build the new stadium, which would be the centerpiece of what the state calls the New Aloha Stadium Entertainment District. The new stadium is expected to generate $40 million worth of tax revenue for the state annually, state Comptroller Curt Otaguro told lawmakers earlier this year.

SB 3334 would also put the stadium district under the auspices of the Hawaii Community Development Authority. The move to the HCDA could help sidestep certain county building requirements and could fast-track development.

Meanwhile, the House approved a measure to increase the state capital gains tax while also overhauling the state earned income tax credit to make it a refundable credit. Supporters see the EITC as a way to give a boost to lower-income working families.

The capital gains tax increase would increase the maximum capital gains tax from 7.25% to 11%, a step that the state Tax Department estimates would allow the state to collect an extra $100 million or more each year.

That measure passed the House in a 46-5 vote, with Democratic Reps. Patrick Branco and Sam Kong voting against the measure along with Republican Reps. Matsumoto, Ward, and Bob McDermott.

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