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Housing woes top agenda as Hawaiʻi lawmakers return

FILE - This May 3, 2022 file photo shows members of the Hawaiʻi House of Representatives discussing legislation at the Hawaiʻi State Capitol in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy, File)
Audrey McAvoy/AP
FILE - This May 3, 2022 file photo shows members of the Hawaiʻi House of Representatives discussing legislation at the Hawaiʻi State Capitol in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy, File)

HONOLULU — Affordable housing, expanding pre-K education and addressing corruption are top of the agenda as Hawaiʻi lawmakers return to the state Capitol.

The state Legislature on Wednesday is scheduled to open a new session that will last through early May.

Lawmakers are fortunate to start with a $1.9 billion surplus after tax receipts have recovered in tandem with the state's tourism industry and consumer spending.

“This is an enviable time to be an elected official because they have plenty of money to spend. That’s always the position you want to be in,” said Colin Moore, a political science professor at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa.

But it’s not clear flush revenues will continue, given the economic uncertainties ahead. And Moore suspects typically cautious Hawaiʻi lawmakers will be hesitant to commit funds to many new programs as a result.

Democrats continue to overwhelmingly dominate both chambers, though Republicans slightly expanded their presence after the November election.

Republicans now control six House seats, up from four, while the Democrats hold 45. In the Senate, Republicans doubled their seats to two from one, while Democrats have 23.

Hawaiʻi is also starting 2023 with a new governor after Democratic Gov. Josh Green was inaugurated last month to succeed former Gov. David Ige.

Building more affordable housing is emerging as the top priority as creeping prices push buying a home out of reach for many local residents.

The median price for a single family home for the entire state hit $930,000 in December. For Oʻahu alone, it stood at $1.04 million.

Senate Democrats say they will support “planned housing projects to provide residents with affordable rent or purchase options,” but didn't offer specifics. They said they would back “workforce housing” for those in “high demand sectors,” without mentioning details. Senate staff didn't answer a question seeking clarification.

Senate Democrats say they will also promote universal pre-K education. Publicly funded early childhood education is currently only available to a small number of Hawaiʻi families.

Rep. Nadine Nakamura, the House majority leader, was unable to speak about her caucus's priorities for the session until after opening day. Her staff said she needed to know the caucus's full package before answering questions.

Lawmakers will have a familiar face in the governor's office, as Green served in the state Legislature from 2004 to 2018. Even so, some of his signature proposals have already run into opposition from the top leaders of the House and Senate, both of whom are also Democrats.

House Speaker Scott Saiki expressed skepticism about Green’s idea to eliminate the general excise tax — Hawaiʻi's version of a sales tax — on food and medication. Saiki told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight online interview program that those who would benefit the most from the proposal already don't pay it, noting that those shopping with food stamps aren't charged the tax. He also said tourists pay 30% of the general excise tax, indicating he wouldn't want to lose that revenue.

Senate President Ron Kouchi questioned Green's proposal to charge travelers a $50 fee that would raise $350 million to address climate change and build affordable housing. During the same Spotlight program, Kouchi predicted the idea would face legal challenges.

Instead, Kouchi said he favored charging fees to those visiting state parks.

Lawmakers will be returning one month after a panel created by the House compiled a list of 31 proposals to address corruption. Their work follows last year's revelations that two lawmakers had taken bribes from a businessman in exchange for influencing legislation.

The commission's proposals include requiring lawmakers to disclose certain relationships with lobbyists and requiring committee chairpersons to say why they are deferring a measure or not scheduling a bill for public hearing.

The panel, called the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct, also suggested increasing public financing for political campaigns to relieve candidates of the need to rely on special interest groups or large donors.

An analysis of state Campaign Spending Commission data by the activist group Our Hawaii found that more than half of the $22.3 million donated to candidates for state and local offices came from just 980 donors.

Sen. Karl Rhoads, a Democrat and the chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said he's introducing legislation that would go even further. He said his proposal would provide candidates with enough money to be competitive, and thus encourage them to use it instead of seeking large contributions from private donors.

Candidates would need to collect a minimum number of $5 contributions from their districts to qualify for the money.

For example, a candidate in the primary and general elections for state House would get $50,000 if they raise 100 donations of $5 from voters in their district. Those running for state Senate would get $100,000 if they receive 200 donations.

Gubernatorial candidates would get $2.5 million after getting 6,250 small-dollar donations.

“This is important to combat private, big money contributions that pour into campaigns,” Rhoads said. “Publicly funded elections are in voter's best interests. Political careers should be completely dependent on voters, not special interest money.”

Advocates say Connecticut and Maine already have similar publicly financed election programs.

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