Lawmakers took final votes on hundreds of bills Tuesday in one of the last days of a session that featured a historic, billion-dollar investment in housing and other programs for Hawaiians, and a major push to increase funding for education.
The Legislature also gave final approval to bills to raise the state minimum wage to $18 an hour over the next six years, and to finally establish a refundable earned income tax credit to provide cash assistance to thousands of struggling working families.
There were controversies along the way, including hot debates Tuesday over measures to overhaul the management of Mauna Kea and reduce the number of people jailed in Hawaii for minor, non-violent crimes. But it appears members of the House and Senate will have an unusually long list of crowd-pleasing bills to point to when they adjourn on Thursday.
Lawmakers got lots of help this year from a swollen budget surplus of more than $2 billion, and their generosity with that extra money may come in handy in the months ahead. The entire 76-member House and Senate, both dominated by Democrats, must either stand for reelection or leave office this year.
Lawmakers gave final approval to a measure that would increase Hawaii’s minimum wage of $10.10 per hour in a series of steps until it reaches $18 per hour in 2028. The same bill would create a state refundable earned income tax credit to provide extra support for lower-income families.
Rep. Jeanne Kapela told her colleagues that “a living wage is a human right,” and said by passing the bill “we are resetting the conversation about what is possible in terms of delivering economic justice to working families, not just for our state but for the entire nation.”
When the final step increase under the bill takes effect in 2028, it will allow minimum wage workers to earn $16,000 more than they do today, she said. She argued that lawmakers in future sessions should index the minimum wage to the cost of living, and should amend the law to have the minimum wage increases kick in earlier.
Rep. Sean Quinlan opposed the measure, saying small businesses in the North Shore and Windward communities he represents have been “absolutely battered” during the pandemic, and he is concerned about how the increase will affect them.
The bill passed 48-3 in the House, with only Democratic Reps. Quinlan and Sam Kong and Republican Rep. Lauren Matsumoto voting against it. The Senate approved the bill unanimously.
Public school teachers’ salaries were another major focus this year, with lawmakers earmarking $130 million in the budget for raises for about 8,700 more senior teachers to resolve an issue known as salary “compression,” and also provide additional pay for professional development.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association has been lobbying for years for that extra pay, and the details will be finalized in upcoming negotiations between the union, Gov. David Ige, the Board of Education and the state superintendent.
That money would be in addition to $32.5 million for another teacher pay initiative that awards extra money to teachers in positions that are difficult to fill, including Hawaiian language teachers, special education teachers, and teachers working in some rural districts.
Kapela, who represents rural Ka‘u, thanked her colleagues Tuesday for supporting those initiatives to boost teacher pay this year. “The schools in my district are remote and highly impoverished,” with an extremely high teacher turnover rate, she said.
She blamed Hawaii’s chronic teacher shortage on low pay — public schools had a shortage of more than 1,000 qualified teachers in the 2018-2019 school year — and said the raises approved this year will go a “long way” toward addressing the problem.
Lawmakers also gave final approval to House Bill 2000, which earmarks $200 million for the School Facilities Authority to renovate existing public school classrooms to convert them to preschools, or to build new preschools from scratch.
House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said that will help to accommodate about 20,000 children who do not have access to preschools now.
The bill to overhaul the management of Mauna Kea cleared the Senate in a lopsided 22-3 vote, with only Sens. Karl Rhoads, Lorraine Inouye and Laura Acasio voting no.
Sen. Donna Mercado Kim took the lead on House Bill 2024 for the Senate. She described the final product, which would transfer management of Mauna Kea to a new 11-member stewardship authority by 2028, as the “work of many hands.”
Kim said she began the session thinking the conflict over Mauna Kea, specifically the fight over the Thirty Meter Telescope, could be insurmountable.
But “instead of asking, ‘How can? No can.’ I asked, ‘How can’t we?’” Kim said.“Why can’t we respect the culture, and the aina and still have a world class astronomy program at the University of Hawaii,” she said.
HB 2024 also makes supporting astronomy a policy of the state and requires the new stewardship authority to advance programs that support astronomy and its education, provisions that were important to the Senate.
But not all senators were happy with the bill.
Inouye, a Big Island senator whose district includes Mauna Kea, said the bill is redundant because the University of Hawaii and the Center for Maunakea Stewardship already help to manage the mountain and its resources.
She said that UH officials worried that the university would become a “lame duck landlord” during the five-year transition period to the new management authority proposed in the bill. She also said there were some concerns in the astronomy community that the bill could halt the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope.
She questioned how much the new authority would actually support astronomy, and called the bill a “Trojan Horse.”
Inouye was almost entirely alone in her opposition.“If this bill is a Trojan Horse, then I’m afraid to report that Troy is already on fire,” Sen. Jarret Keohokalole said.
He maintained that the status quo on Mauna Kea may only continue to threaten the future of astronomy on the mountain. In 2015 and 2019, mass protests halted construction of the TMT.
“I can’t tell you this bill fixes the conflict, but I can tell you that doing nothing now fixes nothing,” Keohokalole said.
Lawmakers considered stripping UH of its authority to manage the area in 2018, but that measure failed. A year later, as the protests on the mountain stalled construction vehicles, former Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim proposed the creation of a new management authority that would give Native Hawaiians a greater voice in Mauna Kea management.
There was little movement on Mauna Kea until last year, when House Speaker Scott Saiki proposed the creation of a working group to restructure management of the mountain. HB 2024 is a product of that group’s discussions.
As lawmakers debated the future of Mauna Kea, a national panel recommended federal funding for the $2 billion TMT. The panel also recommended that TMT do a better job of engaging the Hawaiian community.
Kim, the senator, said during a floor speech that the TMT International Observatory had planned to leave Hawaii if the state was unable to develop a mutual stewardship model.
“They did not want to be in conflict with Indigenous peoples,” she said. “They did not want to be in conflict with the community.”
The bill cleared the House 49-2. Rep. David Tarnas, who chairs the House Water and Land Committee, said the bill creates a framework for managing Mauna Kea, and provides a voice for Native Hawaiians while supporting astronomy.
He also said that it’s not the Legislature’s intent to criticize the University of Hawaii’s management of the Big Island mountain but to learn from their experience.
Republican Rep. Gene Ward said he was skeptical of the measure and wanted to see it as a pilot program. And Rep. Dale Kobayashi opposed the measure saying that it’s “the ultimate zero-sum game.”
“When you hear proponents talking about how this is going to work to make everybody happy, those who consider the telescopes be a desecration as well as those that consider astronomy the most important thing in the world, it really doesn’t make any sense for there to be a win-win on this,” Kobayashi said.
Rich Matsuda of the W.M. Keck Observatory praised lawmakers for finding a solution to move forward on governing Mauna Kea.
“We thank the state legislature for the months of hard work required through the course of this session on the complex challenge of finding a new path forward for Maunakea governance,” he said in a written statement.
“We recognize alignment in the bill with the core principles we have expressed in our testimony throughout the evolution of this legislation. Once it is signed into law, we look forward to collaborating with the authority and participating to make it a success for all.”
UH declined to comment Tuesday on the bill’s passage.
A measure to revamp Hawaii’s system of setting bail for arrestees drew the most opposition in the Senate of any bill that lawmakers passed on Tuesday. The chamber voted 18-7 to send House Bill 1567 to the governor’s office.
The measure would require that many people accused of non-violent misdemeanors and Class C felonies be released on their own recognizance while they await trial. But the bill would not apply to anyone who “presents a risk of danger to any other person or to the community, or a risk of recidivism.”
Arrestees would not be eligible for release without bail under the proposed new law if they are charged with negligent homicide, unauthorized entry into a dwelling, a violent crime or a sex offense, driving under the influence of an intoxicant, or violating a restraining order.
The bill also would not apply to people who failed to show up for their court dates in the past two years; people who have convictions for a violent crime in the past eight years; or people who were pending trial or on probation, parole or conditional release for another offense at the time of their arrest.
Very late in the session lawmakers amended the bill at the request of the Honolulu prosecutor to also exclude people who are arrested for Class C felony drug offenses, such as possession of small amounts of methamphetamine.
Sen. Sharon Moriwaki was the only senator to speak against the bill, calling it premature. She argued the state should wait for more data on recidivism from the Criminal Justice Research Institute before coming to a decision on ending cash bail for low level offenses.
Moriwaki, whose district includes Kakaako and Waikiki, also worried that some misdemeanants might be released back onto the streets to target visitors in the resort district.
A panel of criminal justice experts called for reforms to Hawaii’s cash bail system in 2018, but until this year each legislative proposal to do so has failed.
In the House, the measure was praised by Rep. Sonny Ganaden, who said passing the bill will allow Hawaii to join states such as New York, New Jersey and California that have adopted similar measures, and “have seen not only a reduction in incarceration, but a reduction in crimes across their communities.”
“Right now we still house numerous individuals (in jail) who are simply too poor to find their way out of incarceration,” he said.
Ward called the measure “the get-out-of-jail-free bill,” and said it is motivated by a desire to “give everybody a break.”
“To be soft on crime is not the way to prevent crime,” he said. “It’s bills like this that really loosen the grip on a society that’s getting very, very liberated to break the law with impunity.”
The measure passed the House 45-6, with Democratic Reps. Stacelynn Eli, Sam Kong and Adrian Tam voting against it along with Republican Reps. Lauren Matsumoto, Val Okimoto and Ward.
In the Senate, Sens. Roz Baker, Kurt Fevella, Michelle Kidani, Gil Riviere, Kim and Moriwaki voted no.
Among the major beneficiaries of the budget surplus and tidal wave of support for Hawaiian issues this year has been the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, which is getting a $64 million lump sum from lawmakers this year.
For the first time since 2006, lawmakers are increasing the proceeds OHA receives from public lands from $15.1 million a year to $21.5 million a year. Senate Bill 2021 requires the state and its departments to make quarterly payments to OHA of just over $5 million.
“It has been extremely gratifying to observe this year’s legislative session and know that not only were concerns for the Native Hawaiian people listened to and heard, but attended to as well,” OHA Board of Trustees Chair Carmen Hulu Lindsey said in a written statement Tuesday.
OHA has asked the Legislature to increase its pro-rata share of public land revenues for several years now. SB 2021 doesn’t settle all debates over those land revenues, however.
The bill also requires a working group consisting of representatives appointed by OHA and the governor to reach an agreement on the future amount of land revenues that OHA should receive. The working group was also tasked with determining what amount, if any, OHA should receive for underpayments in land revenue from the state since 2012.
Lawmakers have scheduled final votes for Thursday for another measure — House Bill 2511 — that would provide $600 million to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to build more homes, acquire more land and provide rental and mortgage assistance to Hawaiians on the DHHL waitlist. That list now has more than 28,000 applicants.
Another victory for Hawaiians that won tentative approval Tuesday was a $328 million settlement in a decades-long case over that DHHL waitlist. That settlement is coming through Senate Bill 3041, the annual “claims against the state” bill.
A group of Native Hawaiians in 1999 sued the state after a process to settle claims for time they spent on the waitlist failed. In 2020, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled in favor of the beneficiaries and said they deserve compensation.
The case is known as “Kalima,” named after the lead plaintiff, Leona Kalima. Although there were more than 2,700 plaintiffs at the beginning of the lawsuit, hundreds have died in the more than 20 years it took to settle the case.
Although the Legislature passed SB 3041 on Tuesday, the measure must still be approved by Ige and a state judge. After that, the beneficiaries must go through a claims process to determine the amount of each individual settlement.
SB 3041 also includes $7 million in other settlements made in lawsuits involving the state and its employees. The largest payout is a $4 million settlement in a case involving a deputy sheriff who sexually assaulted a woman in a 1st Circuit Court cellblock in 2014.
A federal jury awarded Elizabeth Mueller $7 million in damages in a civil lawsuit Mueller brought against the Department of Public Safety. Named as one of the defendants in the lawsuit is Deputy Sheriff Freddie Carabbacan, who was fired after assaulting Mueller and another woman in 2014. Carabbacan got his job back in 2016 after going through arbitration.
The state has appealed the jury verdict to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.
Civil Beat reporter Cassie Ordonio contributed to this story.
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