The Legislature convened on Wednesday with crowds, entertainment, lobbying and even a minor disruption by a citizen at the State Capitol, all signs that things are finally getting back to normal after two years of pandemic shutdowns and restrictions.

House and Senate leaders used their opening day speeches to float proposals to enhance a state tax break for working families known as the earned income tax credit. House members also pledged to do more to help persons suffering from mental illness. Gov. Josh Green immediately embraced those proposals.

House Democratic Majority Leader Nadine Nakamura also proposed to commit $300 million of the state’s budget surplus to the rental housing trust fund to support construction of more affordable rental housing, which she said will be the House’s signature housing proposal for this year.

The Legislature held its opening day ceremony with the first large public gathering since 2020. Blaze Lovell/Civil Beat/2023

Hawaii closed the books last year with $2.6 billion in cash, which amounts to a large surplus for a small state. That means there is extra money this year that lawmakers hope to use to help cope with some of the state’s most pressing and long-standing problems.

Promising Cooperation

House Speaker Scott Saiki did his best to put to rest talk of tensions between Green and some lawmakers.

“The Sesame Street word of the day is ‘cooperation,'” he joked, drawing laughter and applause from the packed audience in the House chamber.

“Speaking of cooperation, as you know there have been some media reports speculating on the relationship between the Legislature and the governor,” Saiki said. “So, let me be clear: The House will work with Gov. Green and his team in good faith and in a positive manner so that we can solve problems and bring results to Hawaii residents.”

Green was in the audience, and that remark prompted him to stand, smile and put his palms together in a gesture of thanks directed at Saiki.

There also have been rumblings that some in the Senate are unhappy with some of Green’s appointments.

Senate President Ron Kouchi also struck a conciliatory tone, pledging to cooperate with the new governor on the issue of imposing new fees on tourists who visit Hawaii landmarks and parks.

“I’m committed to work with him, to get the resources we need from the people we agree should be paying to take care of our natural resources,” Kouchi said. He also said he admires Green for giving Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke leeway to oversee a massive expansion of preschool classrooms in Hawaii. Green later embraced Kouchi while he spoke on the rostrum.

Green told reporters the proposals he heard in the House and Senate are “super similar” to his own plans, and offered some hints Wednesday about his own initiatives. Most of Green’s proposals will be showcased in his first State of the State address scheduled for Monday.

Mental health care is a “huge priority” for the new administration, Green said, adding he was pleased to hear Saiki mention the issue on opening day.

Gov. Josh Green and lawmakers like Senate President Ron Kocuhi pledged to work together this session. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023

“We need a lot more mental health care workers, and that means social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists, nurses especially,” he said. His new budget proposal will include money to finance student loan forgiveness to people in those specialties to try to encourage them to work in Hawaii, he said.

‘Accelerate The Pace’

State-funded hospitals will also be asked to commit to expand their mental health services, meaning more space and more staff on their campuses, he said.

Green said he also plans to offer a proposal to sweeten the state earned income tax credit, which lower-income families can file to claim state tax refunds. Green said that proposal will be part of a larger package of more than $300 million in tax changes he wants to make.

Lawmakers are veterans who know what the community needs, but Green said he is determined to “accelerate the pace.”

“My job, I think, is to do things a lot faster and more effectively and efficiently than some people in the past, to get their policies into motion so that it actually has impact — to build the houses faster, to deal with homelessness more directly… so that we don’t wait,” he said. “Every year that we wait, more kids leave, more people are houseless.”

The opening day festivities drew large crowds in both the House and Senate, the first time since 2020 that the general public was invited to opening day ceremonies at the Capitol.

“The House will work with Gov. Green and his team in good faith.” — House Speaker Scott Saiki

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