The Legislature just ended what may be one of the most significant sessions in state history that saw billions of dollars allocated to Native Hawaiian causes, housing projects and a slew of other initiatives that could put some money back in the pockets of taxpayers.
If the session had to get a letter grade, Senate President Ron Kouchi said his fellow lawmakers deserve an “A.”
“I’ve never achieved every single bill I’ve talked about before,” Kouchi said, adding that almost every session lawmakers lose priority measures as problems crop up.
This year was different. Lawmakers already made good on promises to raise the minimum wage and on Thursday checked off the remainder of their legislative priorities.
Bolstered by a budget surplus of more than $2 billion, the House and Senate voted unanimously to give the state Department of Hawaiian Home Lands $600 million and stash away $500 million in the state’s rainy day fund to protect against future emergencies.
A $300 million proposal to fund more affordable housing projects also cleared the Legislature, as did a $250 million bill to give tax rebates of up to $300 to Hawaii residents.
This is also an election year in which all 76 legislative seats are up for reelection, and the multitude of voter-pleasing proposals that won approval this session is sure to make for good campaign fodder.
The highlight of those new allocations is more than $1 billion that has been set aside to benefit Hawaiians. On top of the DHHL proposal, lawmakers also cleared a $328 million settlement in a decades-old case involving homesteaders and allocated $64 million to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
Sen. Maile Shimabukuro, who represents Oahu’s Waianae Coast, said her constituents, many of whom are Hawaiian, may have felt forgotten by government.
“Today is clear proof that the state has not forgotten the Hawaiians,” she said while speaking in support of House Bill 2511, the DHHL funding bill.
The measure gives the department until December to develop a plan on how to spend that money. Lawmakers gave DHHL until 2025 to spend all $600 million.
At a press conference Wednesday, DHHL Deputy Director Tyler Iokepa Gomes said this session marked a turning point for Hawaiian issues.
“This is a signal of the changing tide for Native Hawaiians, not just for housing but for education as well,” he said.
That mood was felt among lawmakers too.
“It’s been lingering over all of us, it shows the unrest and unhappiness in the community. I think Native Hawaiians have every right to feel the way that they did,” Kouchi said during a press conference Thursday.
Much of that unrest was apparent in protests over the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea in 2015 and 2019. The protests raised other issues of Native Hawaiian self-determination, land rights and funding for DHHL.
He called the measures to support Hawaiian causes a big step in bridging the divides in the community.
“If we’re going to be able to heal and come together and move forward in unity, then everyone needs to feel that they were being treated fairly,” he said.
House Speaker Scott Saiki recited lawmakers’ accomplishments for this year, including raising the state minimum wage to $18 by 2028, and earmarking $1 billion for housing, including $600 million for Hawaiian homelands. He also reminded listeners of the new refundable earned income tax credit, and tax rebates worth $300 per person for low-income families.
“When you take a step back, there was no guarantee that the session would end the way it did,” Saiki told House members in his final speech for the year. “For the past two years, every conceivable obstacle has been thrown at all of us, but you are resilient, and you overcame all of the hurdles to deliver real results for real people.”
Rep. Bert Kobayashi told his colleagues that “some people will say that we are on a spending spree” with lawmakers earmarking $1 billion for Hawaiian programs, and hundreds of millions of dollars more for housing.
“But we are also on a savings spree, with $1 billion in savings,” Kobayashi said. That includes $800 million in the state’s “rainy day” budget reserve fund — including $500 million lawmakers earmarked for the reserve fund Thursday — and nearly $200 million more in the Hawaii Hurricane Relief Fund.
Lawmakers also approved $300 million in new contributions to the public employees’ pension fund, and hundreds of millions of dollars more to cover health insurance for public workers and retirees in the future.
“So, we are doing both, spending and saving,” Kobayashi said. “I think that we can say we have taken care of both immediate needs, but we are also looking toward the future, and putting in a very large and healthy cushion for the next Finance chair.”
The governor proposed setting aside $1 billion in the rainy day fund at the start of session. Lawmakers instead allocated $500 million, bringing the total in the state’s piggy bank to $800 million.
The grand total of how much lawmakers spent in the budget and in various bills passed this session is still not known. Gov. David Ige has the power to restrict funds if he thinks lawmakers overspent. He can also line item veto the budget bill to remove certain cost items. The governor said during a press conference that he is still reviewing all the fiscal measures that passed this week.
There was concern among lawmakers and others that the level of funding for DHHL may not continue or could wane. Lawmakers won’t see billions of dollars in surplus funds every year, but the department still needs quite a bit of money if it hopes to cut down on a waitlist that has grown to more than 28,000 applicants.
Ige also floated the idea of setting aside 10% of the annual revenues from the Transient Accommodations Tax, which he estimates could provide the department with between $60 million to $80 million annually in a normal tourism year. If tourism continues to grow, Ige said that number could eventually top $100 million annually.
“Those numbers are what would need to be committed in the long term to really make sure that we can deliver on the obligation we accepted at statehood to deliver a homesteading program for Native Hawaiians,” Ige said.
The end of session also marked the end of the political careers of three senators and a handful of House members. Several representatives plan to run for newly vacant seats created by those Senate retirements.
Sens. Roz Baker, Brian Taniguchi and Clarence Nishihara are all retiring this year. Taniguchi is one of the Legislature’s longest serving members with a political career that spans more than 40 years.
“When he was first elected in 1980, I was still watching ‘Kikaida,'” Sen. Glenn Wakai said, referencing the television show featuring a masked android who fights evil villains. Wakai said he’s grateful to have worked with Taniguchi, who he described as a “real life Japanese superhero.”
The women in the Senate all wore red, “Roz Red,” Sen. Joy San Buenaventura said, in honor of Baker. The Maui senator was first elected to the House in 1988.
The retiring senators made mostly brief closing speeches, thanking their friends, family and colleagues. Nishihara said he was happy to leave, especially since he won’t need to campaign anymore.
“Constituents are important, but not as important as your family,” he said.
Most of the floor session in the House on Thursday was taken up by tearful farewell speeches by nine departing members.
The most politically disruptive departure is the exit of House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke, who announced in October she is running for lieutenant governor. Luke is a key part of the House leadership and one of the most powerful politicians in the state, and her departure may cause upheaval in the House as members jockey for position.
Luke served in the House for 24 years, and has controlled the Finance Committee for a decade, a job that gave her a great deal of control over billions of dollars in state spending each year. Saiki, who is a longtime, close ally of Luke, said she “will go down as the greatest Finance chair in history.”
An emotional Luke struggled to complete her speech, pausing several times to compose herself as she thanked her family for their sacrifices during her career, and her fellow House members for their efforts.
“This year I’m thankful for our revenues, because we were able to pass monumental legislation that will impact the lives of so many people for many years to come, and I think that was only possible with the help of each and every one of you,” she told her colleagues.
She was given a standing ovation.
Other lawmakers who have announced they are departing are Rep. Henry Aquino, who plans to run for the state Senate seat being vacated by Nishihara; and Rep. Angus McKelvey, who plans to run for the Senate seat being vacated by Baker.
Also leaving are Rep. Patrick Branco, a freshman lawmaker who plans to run for the 2nd Congressional District seat now held by U.S. Rep. Kai Kahele; and Reps. Takashi Ohno and Tina Wildberger, who have announced they are stepping down.
Rep. Luella Costales, who was appointed to the House in March, also does not plan to run for a full term. She was appointed to the seat representing Waipahu, Makakilo, and West Loch after Rep. Ty Cullen resigned in February shortly before he was charged with and pleaded guilty to honest services felony wire fraud in a bribery scheme.
Also leaving office is House Consumer Protection Committee Chairman Aaron Ling Johanson, a member of the House leadership who said he plans to leave office to spend more time with his elderly parents.
Republican Rep. Bob McDermott has also announced he is departing to run for the U.S. Senate against Sen. Brian Schatz; and House Minority Leader Val Okimoto plans to run for the Honolulu City Council. Those departures mean the Republicans are losing two of their four House members.