The Senate includes affordable housing and more services for the homeless on its priority list.
Lawmakers in the state House will introduce a “historic” piece of legislation in the days ahead to commit $600 million to help develop Hawaiian homelands for affordable housing, and will also propose a bill to increase the state minimum wage from $10.10 to $18 per hour.
House Speaker Scott Saiki announced those plans in an unusually specific, brief speech Wednesday marking opening day of the Legislature this year.
State Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson also outlined a plan by the Democrats to amend state law to require the U.S. Navy to close its Red Hill bulk fuel storage facility.
Lawmakers traditionally open each year’s legislative session with somewhat flowery speeches that are meant to be uplifting, but are light on policy details. This year, all members of the House and Senate are up for reelection, and House Democrats are publicly committing to some specific, ambitious goals.
For the second consecutive year, opening day at the locked Capitol was devoid of large crowds or demonstrators gathering outside in the rotunda. Lawmakers say they will consider reopening the building at the end of the month if the latest Covid-19 surge has receded by then. House leaders allowed media coverage including photos, but the Senate did not.
Seven senators and five House members participated in the opening day ceremonies remotely via Zoom, and Hawaii Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald administered the oath of office to Rep. Linda Clark in the House. Clark was appointed by Gov. David Ige to represent East Maui, Lanai and Molokai.
In the Senate, Malia Kaai-Barrett sang the national anthem and Hawaii Pono’i for the opening session, but both the House and Senate floor sessions were finished in less than an hour.
Top priorities for the Senate this year include addressing issues with mental health and Hawaii’s homeless population and advancing measures that would build more affordable housing and addressing inequities in access to menstrual products.
Perhaps the most striking plan on the House agenda would commit $600 million in a lump sum to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to help cope with the state’s affordable housing crisis. That is made possible this year by a projected surplus in state tax collections that is expected to be well in excess of $1 billion.
Saiki said Native Hawaiians are the demographic group “that has been hardest hit and most priced out of housing,” adding that “it is time to give the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands the resources it needs to fulfill its fiduciary duty.”
Senate spokesman Jacob Aki said the Senate Democrats are open to the House proposal, but did not commit to a specific sum. The House is planning to use the state surplus to fund the HHL housing initiative, while Aki said the Senate is considering using a mix of federal and state funds.
Tyler Gomes, deputy to the chairman of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, said that money could provide homes for thousands of the 28,000 Native Hawaiians who are now waitlisted for leases from DHHL. He described it as a “monumental” proposal.
The last time the department received a comparable infusion of cash was in 1995, when the administration of former Gov. John Waihee agreed to pay $600 million to the department to settle claims over the state’s long history of misuse of homelands.
That settlement was compensation for lands that were earmarked under the federal Hawaiian Homes Commission Act for homesteading by Hawaiians, but instead were diverted for other uses such as airports or other public facilities.
That settlement was paid to the department in increments of $30 million per year for 20 years, and the last payment ended in 2015. That allowed the department to build more than 4,000 homes, Gomes said.
Receiving $600 million in a lump sum would allow the department to move more quickly, Gomes said, and make a dent in the waitlist “in a way that has never been done before.”
“We’re glad that they hear us, they’re recognizing the need, and we have so much gratitude to them for recognizing our ability to deploy that kind of money,” he said.
The facility leaked thousands of gallons of fuel into Oahu’s drinking water, sickening some residents and displacing thousands of military families.
“We will reiterate that call for action. The House will not allow the military to put the aquifer that supplies water to all of Oahu’s residents at risk,” Saiki told members of the House in his floor speech.
Johanson elaborated on that point for reporters, explaining that the contamination of the aquifer was a “wake-up call to everybody.” He said House Democrats will advance a bill to require that the Red Hill tanks be closed.
“I think it’s the overwhelming sentiment of the House that the facility, at 80 years old and going on 100, has just outlived its usefulness,” Johanson said. “It’s so complicated and so large in scale that the Navy and the military can’t with 100% certainty pre-empt things from happening.”
“The truth is, it just poses such a systemic risk to all of Oahu that it’s just not acceptable or responsible to continue the operation of this facility in its present incarnation,” he said.
Saiki also made a pitch for an “economic justice” agenda that includes the minimum wage increase along with a new refundable earned income tax credit. The House is also seeking an increase in the state’s modest food excise tax credit, which was originally created to offset the impact of the state excise tax credit on food sales.
Saiki said the package of the EITC, the food tax credit and the proposed increase in the state minimum wage to $18 “will give a family an additional $33,600 in income.”
The state minimum wage has been $10.10 per hour since 2018, while California has already increased its minimum wage to $15 for most employers.
It isn’t clear yet how quickly Saiki and the House Democrats intend to increase the wage floor.
Minimum wage increases are traditionally phased in over several years in $1- or $2-per year increments to try to limit the impact on employers, but that approach means low-income wage earners have to wait to receive a significant raise.
Saiki did not offer any specifics on that issue, but said that in this case, “I’m thinking that the (minimum wage) bump will be significant in the earlier years.”
Minimum wage was also a top issue in the Senate on Wednesday. Last year, senators advanced a bill that would raise the minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2022 but that proposal failed in the House. Lawmakers at the time said business conditions weren’t right yet to raise wages.
Senate President Ron Kouchi said he was encouraged to see the House come forward with a minimum wage proposal, but wouldn’t commit to a specific amount for a new minimum.
Kouchi didn’t reject the idea of eventually raising wages to $18 an hour, but suggested the dollar amount of the new minimum could be lower if the proposal is packaged with other initiatives such as the earned income tax credit or increasing the food tax credit.
The Senate leadership also declined to commit to a specific schedule for implementing the minimum wage increase. Kouchi said those details would be worked out during committee hearings on any minimum wage proposals.
Sherry Menor-McNamara, president of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii who has said she will run for lieutenant governor, said the chamber generally supports a minimum wage increase, but wouldn’t take a position on how high the wage floor should be.
The chamber, which advocates on behalf of thousands of businesses in Hawaii, still needs to survey its members to determine how large of a wage increase the chamber should support, Menor-McNamara said.
The chamber supported a wage increase in 2020 before the pandemic hit, but opposed a minimum wage increase last year.
This year, Menor-McNamara said businesses are still reeling from the pandemic and are now dealing with workforce shortages and supply chain issues. Those problems coupled with inflation have driven up the cost of doing business as well as costs for consumers, she said.
While the chamber supports a wage increase, Menor-McNamara said lawmakers should take other steps to address Hawaii’s cost of living.
“Wage is one factor that can address the cost of living,” she said. “We need to address other factors like affordable housing, child care — among other issues — and take a more holistic approach.”
The Senate has a laundry list of priorities it hopes to tackle this session. At the top is affordable housing.
Kouchi has suggested using a portion of the $1 billion that Ige wants to tuck into the state’s rainy day fund to pay for infrastructure and affordable housing projects. During his opening remarks in the Senate chambers, he also reiterated his support for homeless service programs like Ohana zones.
Sen. Michelle Kidani also said she is concerned with retaining teachers in Hawaii and plans to introduce a measure that would set aside housing options for public educators in the state.
Kouchi said he plans to push for a bill that would make feminine hygiene products free in schools after reading a Civil Beat story that highlighted the lack of those products in the public education system.
“It breaks my heart to read that they are using newspaper and other materials,” Kouchi said, adding that any efforts spent on the public education system are lost if students aren’t going to school because they can’t access hygienic products.
Kouchi said the issue is important to him and he would be working with the legislative women’s caucus to advance a bill this year.
The 2022 session of the Legislature is scheduled to adjourn on May 5.