For now, House and Senate leaders say it’s premature to schedule one. But the disaster may well warrant convening to pass spending and statutory measures.

The Hawaii Legislature will likely hold a special session in response to the Maui wildfires, but a date has not been set.

The leaders of the Senate and the House of Representatives both say it is premature to schedule the session, which would involve bringing all 76 lawmakers to the Hawaii State Capitol.

But if a special session is warranted, the top priorities will be money including for environmental remediation in the impacted areas, says House Speaker Scott Saiki.

“It will also be about the future — how do we guard against this going forward?” he said. “How do we prevent this from happening again?”

Any special session of the Hawaii Legislature would involve appropriating funds for environmental remediation of Lahaina. (U.S. Army National Guard/Staff Sgt. Matthew A. Foster/2023)

The ongoing crisis, which has so far killed at least 114 people, destroyed several thousand properties and is expected to cost the state billions of dollars in damages, is one of the worst disasters to confront the islands. It is the deadliest wildfire in the U.S. in more than 100 years.

It comes just as Hawaii has largely weathered the Covid-19 pandemic and seen its vital visitor industry rebound.

The Legislature meets annually from January until May, and short special sessions are commonly held during the rest of the year for matters such as consideration of judicial nominations.

The Senate Judiciary Committee, for example, has scheduled confirmation hearings for three District Court nominees and one Circuit Court nominee on Monday. But that only involves the Senate Judiciary Committee and the 25-member Senate — the latter typically for a quick floor session to vote on the nominations.

The last time the Legislature convened a special session that involved both chambers was in late August 2017 in order to fund the Honolulu rail project. The emergency that prompted it was to secure funding for the project, which was in financial trouble. The rail just opened for limited business last month.

The 2017 session lasted five days and resulted in increasing the statewide hotel room tax and extending the 0.5% general excise tax surcharge — a $2.4 billion rail financing package.

Saiki said this time a special session will be different. Typically, lawmakers agree prior to session on proposed bills and appropriations, ensuring a speedy process.

House Speaker Scott Saiki. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

But Saiki said a session this fall could involve legislation to address complex and controversial issues such as water rights on Maui. That would almost certainly attract intense public testimony.

“It will not be the usual pattern,” he said, adding that lawmakers would have to have in place a plan of action. “If we do hold a special session, there will be a lot of preparation in advance, with the Legislature working together with the administration and Maui County and other organizations.”

“But at the same time, I know that the public will want to see what we are doing and they should weigh in,” he said. “I do not see this being a typical five-day special session.”

Senate President Ron Kouchi did not respond to a media inquiry about a special session. But he did release a statement late Thursday.

“The true extent of the damage caused by the wildfires (is) unfolding slowly and requires a painstaking process that the Federal, State, and County agencies are working through. As such, it is currently premature to consider a special legislative session relating to the Maui wildfires, though the Senate stands ready to work with the House and the Governor to explore all legislative options, at the appropriate time,” Kouchi said in the statement.

The Legislature can call itself into special session with a two-thirds vote of both chambers. The Hawaii governor can also order lawmakers to return to work.

Saiki said he had been in discussion with Gov. Josh Green since the fires started Aug. 8, and he said Green agreed it was premature to for lawmakers to gather now.

He also noted that the governor’s emergency proclamations are each in effect for 60 days at a time. The third proclamation suspends most major state laws “and gives the governor complete flexibility to prioritize funds, to move funds, to suspend laws.”

At this point, said Saiki, the response of Hawaii’s government to the fires “is an administration function.”

But Saiki said the House had been caucusing via Zoom. Members of the Maui delegation are also focused on recovery efforts: Reps. Troy Hashimoto on shelters and housing, Kyle Yamashita on fiscal issues and Justin Woodson on education.

Elle Cochran, who represents Lahaina, managed to escape the blaze and is also working on recovery efforts.

Civil Beat’s coverage of Maui County is supported in part by grants from the Nuestro Futuro Foundation.

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