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Hawaiʻi legislators get a B-plus for their work this year, local public policy expert says

Hawaiʻi state House of Representatives jan
Audrey McAvoy/AP
The Hawaiʻi House of Representatives meets on opening day of the legislative session at the Hawaiʻi State Capitol in Honolulu on Wednesday, Jan. 19, 2022. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)

While state lawmakers are congratulating themselves for infusing large funds into Native Hawaiian issues and raising the minimum wage, a local public policy expert says he would give their work a B-plus grade.

Approved measures from the 2022 legislative session, which ended Thursday, commit about $1 billion toward Native Hawaiian issues, according to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement.

If signed by Gov. David Ige, HB 2511 will infuse $600 million into the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. SB 2021 would settle a decades-old dispute over the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ share of public land trust revenue. And SB3041 is a $328 million settlement to all claims by Home Lands beneficiaries who filed suit against the state for breach of trust.

Lawmakers also checked off other priorities by raising the minimum wage to $18 by 2028, and helping working families by extending the earned income tax credit. It has been a difficult time during this pandemic but the unexpected surplus meant the House and Senate could be more financially impactful.

Colin Moore, director of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, said the Legislature did well this session but they were "playing the game on easy mode."

"They've passed a lot of great legislation, you know, the huge amount of money that's going to DHHL, increased funding for OHA, raising the minimum wage, and even putting a fair bit of money away for the state's rainy day fund, the hurricane relief fund. That's all great. But to some extent, they were able to do this because they had a $2 billion surplus, more money than they thought they were going to have," Moore said.

And with all 76 legislators up for reelection, Moore said this was the time to fund their priorities.

"So they can send out those mailers and remind their constituents of everything they did. But that's not to say that there wasn't good legislation passed across the board," he said. "I understand that Senate President (Ron Kouchi) gave them an A, I think I'd give them a B-plus."

The legislative session was clouded by the bribery scandal involving former Sen. J. Kalani English and Rep. Ty Cullen, Moore said. Both have admitted in court that they took bribes to steer legislation related to cesspools.

"I want to emphasize that even by national standards, this is a major corruption scandal," Moore told The Conversation. "I'm not going to be surprised if you see a lot of candidates trying to address that this time around, when they're running for re-election — to emphasize their concern for ethics."

"I do think at its root is sort of a cultural problem in the Legislature, I mean, a certain amount of arrogance that would lead to legislators thinking that they were almost untouchable," he said.

Moore said the only way to solve that problem is more election challengers — more democracy.

Legislators and councilmembers will play musical chairs in this year's election, Moore said. Some House members are trying to move up to the Senate while Honolulu councilmembers are running for seats in the Legislature.

"The game isn't going to change all that much. We have a pretty stable political class here in Hawaiʻi, so there'll be a little bit of reshuffling, but I don't think there's going to be any big changes that come out of this election, particularly at the Legislature," he added.

This interview aired on The Conversation on May 6, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Catherine Cruz is the host of The Conversation. Originally from Guam, she spent more than 30 years at KITV, covering beats from government to education. Contact her at ccruz@hawaiipublicradio.org.
Sophia McCullough is a digital news producer. Contact her at news@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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