Rep. Sylvia Luke reflects on Ige's State of the State and looks ahead to legislative session
In his State of the State address, Gov. David Ige outlined what drives his priorities in his final year. The Conversation talked to House Finance Chair and Rep. Sylvia Luke about what the governor highlighted and perhaps left unsaid.
Luke was sympathetic to challenges the governor faced during the pandemic, and his goals in his final term in office. She says Hawaiʻi has the opportunity to tackle long-standing problems facing our state.
Read excerpts from her interview below.
On the takeaways from the governor's State of the State address
SYLVIA LUKE: I thought it was really good that he concentrated on some of the things that we were already working on — so pre-COVID, when before we shut down the House, Senate, and the governor had agreed to make a commitment to allow for all three- and four-year-olds the access to early education. So this year, he reiterated that promise again, and it's something that we passed in 2020, in spite of COVID. He didn't really specify how he was going to do that. But through legislation, I am planning to introduce bills to fund pathway or immersion preschools, and additional funding for preschool and childcare build-out. That's one portion. The other exciting thing, which almost everybody believes is now critical is broadband expansion. Broadband is not something that people really discussed, or wasn't really top of mind prior to COVID. But when COVID hit, and everything went virtual, whether it was a legislative hearing, or even to go to a doctor's office, it turned to virtual meetings and Zoom meetings, and even virtual workplaces. I think everybody became aware how fragile our broadband capacity was. And I don't think people know, but in, I think it was 2018 or 2019, Kauaʻi had their broadband cable cut. So for one day, they were without broadband, and can you imagine not being able to access your phone or Facebook or Instagram or browse on the internet for a whole day — that tells everyone how fragile our broadband capacity and system is. So one of the things that the governor said was that he will be investing $400 million for broadband capacity, which is really exciting. Broadband has now become a necessity. It's almost a utility.
On Ige's proposed $100 refund for taxpayers and their dependents
The rebate for taxpayers, I think that is definitely something that we will take a look at. The House is already considering providing tax relief for our working class. That's why we're thinking of increasing the food credit, making the Earned Income Tax Credit permanent and refundable, which will hit a lot more working families. We are not sure if the $100 for every individual pencils out or makes sense. We may want to scale it. In the past, what we have done is provide greater funding for people on the lower-income scale and scale it down. But we have to just see how that works out.
On Ige's omission of the minimum wage discussion
That's one thing that was missing, especially since the public members are already talking about it. And both House and Senate leadership have talked about minimum wage, but minimum wage was not something that was covered in his speech.
On expanding doctor residency programs and investing in local health care
That's really important and the program that he discussed, which is to encourage primary care doctors to stay here and work here, was something that even he recognized that we started a few years ago — and it's very successful on the Big Island and we want to expand that program statewide. The other thing is the state lab needs a lot of help because I think we can all agree that COVID-19 will not be the last disease that we'll see. There might be additional type of variants or a different type of SARS or we also saw H1N1 and other types of flu — so it is a good idea for us to ramp up and provide more assistance to the state lab.
On investing in the state's database and technology capabilities
Just in the last 10 years, we've invested a lot in improving our technology and the infrastructure. I think it behooves all of us to take a look at the status of all those projects, and then look where we can improve further. So for instance, there are so many things. If we have an integrated system, we can do so many things: tracking health of kids, whether it's at the (Department of Human Services) level, or (Department of Education) level and providing wraparound services. I think there's so many opportunities for us to take advantage of IT. Even as we get more money from the federal government, whether it's broadband or whether it's to sync up the traffic lights in anticipation of us getting autonomous vehicles. I think there's vision and there's wisdom in investing in IT systems, and IT upgrades that work with the private sector.
On charging fees at visitor sites to help fund the preservation of natural resources
Prior to COVID, about a million people visited Diamond Head and that generated, prior to COVID, the entry fee was about $1 and parking fee was $5. And even with that, we had record number of tourists visit Diamond Head Park, even before COVID hit. So when COVID hit, we had time to reevaluate and Department of Land and Natural Resources was already thinking about adjusting the fees. So I'm happy to report that the entry fee is now, you know, it went from $1 to $5. And then the parking fee went from $5 to $10. And just in 2021, which we didn't even hit the million tourists mark, they at least doubled or could have tripled the amount of revenues collected. And that money, which now is close to $3 million, as opposed to a $1 million just several years ago, can be reinvested right back into the park, and help in the maintenance and cleanup and provide a much better visitor experience for everyone who visits.
On Ige's emotional tone toward the end of his speech
When you watch the governor's speech, it was really heartwarming. At the end of the speech, he got very emotional. And that's the side of David that people have not seen. And I think because of that, people look at him as an individual who was very aloof, or who was very engineer-driven and analytical, but that was something that I think it moved a lot of people because towards the end, he said, "and I am proud to be your governor," and he kind of teared up and got choked up. And I think that shows you that he tried his best and he's reflecting right, you know, this is his last State of the State after eight years. And he's reflecting and he's talking about how difficult it was, but he was proud to serve in that position. So I thought that was very heartwarming.
This interview aired on The Conversation on Jan. 25, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.