State lawmakers prioritize cooperation and preservation on opening day
Finding ways to lessen the state's cost of living has been on the mind of lawmakers as the state Legislature's 32nd session reconvened Wednesday.
The House and Senate opened with the festivities and open doors, reminiscent of pre-pandemic days, with guests and constituents from throughout the state traveling to Honolulu.
"It's really important, as the pandemic has begun to lift that we reopen the capital because this building is it's symbolic of our Democratic system," House Speaker Scott Saiki of Oʻahu said.
During opening session remarks, both chambers highlighted similar goals to increase housing opportunities, access to mental health services and protection of the state's natural resources.
"The main product we have is the beauty of our islands, the beauty of our people and tourism," Senate President Ron Kouchi of Kauaʻi said. "But when we've surveyed, our residents have been clear: visitors should be paying for their impact on our natural resources."
How that could look may be a visitor fee at state parks and trails that could go into a revolving fund at the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
Rather than an ad-hoc system where each venue contracts out its own reservation system, the state would take over in a model similar to the one used on Kauaʻi at Haʻena State Park.
"We should create a statewide visitor reservation and payment system make major investments to repair or restore our state parks, ocean resources and forests and harness the enthusiasm and physical strength of community organizations to maintain our parks and trails," Saiki said.
The next increase won’t be until 2024, when it goes to $16, and will increase every two years until it hits $18 an hour. The same law that did this also made the federal Earned Income Tax Credit permanent for some households at lower income thresholds, Saiki would like to adjust that even more.
"This year, you've already seen a number of proposals on how to provide tax relief to residents, whether it's a food credit or a rental credit. I feel that the EITC is a comprehensive credit that captures over 100,000 households that probably benefit from the food credit, the renter's credit," Saiki said.
"Rather than the piecemeal credits, I feel like we should just consolidate really one entry point, which, you know, I believe is the EITC, so we'll see how it what happens."
Lawmakers also invested in housing last session, and plans are to further stretch those dollars and add more.
House Majority Leader Rep. Nadine Nakamura of Kauaʻi said the Legislature can tap into funding and actions of last year.
"Our families in Hawaiʻi cannot grow and thrive without building more affordable housing. Although we allocated close to a billion dollars for housing last session, we can’t take our foot off the pedal," Nakamura said. That money, she said, would be used to build 7,000 affordable housing units over the next several years.
"By putting an additional $300 million into the rental housing revolving fund, we can build another 800 units of affordable housing and keep the development and construction pipeline flowing," Nakamura said.
Lawmakers have also committed to giving recommendations and bills from the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct a shot, in an attempt to reform past practices and stop corruption before it can begin.
But is that enough? Aggressively tackling the state's issues will take both the legislative and executive branches.
Gov. Josh Green had outlined his own goals to build affordable housing, help the homeless, combat climate change and find ways to lower the cost of living. For Green, whether that’s through tax breaks or repealing the general excise tax on food and some medication, that hinges on lawmakers.
"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 (lawmakers') policies into motion so that it actually has the impact to build the houses faster and deal with homelessness more directly, to actually get super tax credits into the ALICE families lives," Green said Wednesday afternoon.
Green will articulate his plans in his State of the State speech next Monday, but has already said he intends to spend federal aid, increase social services, create a housing plan and develop health care across the islands.
In December, Green submitted his administration's first biennium budget. In general fund costs, he has allotted $9.8 billion for fiscal year 2024, which begins July 1, 2023 and $9.6 billion in fiscal year 2025, which begins the following year. This is a $667 million increase from the state’s previous budget.
Both chamber leaders and Green acknowledged the contentious attitude between the two branches, but both committed to working together.
"The Sesame Street word of the day is 'cooperation,'" Saiki said, as a boisterous protestor who interrupted his remarks was removed from the crowd. "In order for Hawaiʻi to be successful, we must all endeavor to cooperate with each other."