Lawmakers plan initiatives on minimum wage, elections in new session
Originally published in the Star-Advertiser, December 26, 2018
Kevin Dayton and Gordon Y.K Pang
Lobbyists, lawmakers and activists have been busy for weeks, but the Hawaii state Legislature officially opened Wednesday morning with chant, hula, prayers and song, and also some speeches that hinted at political tensions at the state Capitol.
House Speaker Scott Saiki pledged to a packed audience in the House chamber that lawmakers this year will ensure hundreds of millions of dollars they earmarked last year for affordable housing and addressing homelessness will be used promptly and efficiently.
“It is within our control to ensure that government funds are well spent and produce their intended results,” said Saiki, (D, Downtown-Kakaako-McCully). “All pocketbooks are hit when funds are misspent — the pocketbooks of those who pay taxes and those who expect to receive services.”
Those remarks seemed aimed at Gov. David Ige, who was sitting in the front row and is officially responsible for implementing social programs. Democratic House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti has complained that Ige was slow to use funds provided to combat homelessness and unimaginative in his planning.
Lawmakers have often faulted Ige for failing to reach out to them with clear plans and proposals to cope with everything from homelessness to illegal vacation rentals, and that relationship was further strained last year when top leaders in the House and Senate endorsed Ige’s Democratic opponent Colleen Hanabusa for governor.
For his part, Ige described the House and Senate sessions Wednesday as “a terrific opening day,” and said he heard lawmakers discussing “a lot of shared, common values and goals.”
As for Saiki’s comments, “We know and we audit out programs regularly, and certainly look forward to the scrutiny and oversight by the Legislature,” Ige said. “I’m proud of the work that we’ve done, we’ve made significant progress in so many areas.”
Senate President Ron Kouchi, who was among those who supported Hanabusa last summer, struck a more conciliatory tone with the administration.
Ige has requested that lawmakers budget more than $2 billion for state construction projects in the fiscal year that begins July 1, which is an unusually large request for a single year. Kouchi said he is “excited” by that plan, noting that government construction work would help during what’s anticipated to be a slowing economy.
These are good times for the state, which is enjoying record-setting tax collections as the Hawaii economy continues to grow, but Kouchi is concerned about some alarming signs in the world economy. The record-setting shutdown of portions of the federal government and the December declines in the U.S. stock market are worrisome, he said.
“If the recession is coming, and times get tougher, and the bids get more competitive, then the government gets better pricing on our projects and we can stretch the $2 billion a lot more than what we had originally hoped,” Kouchi said.
Exactly which communities will benefit from that extra spending is likely to be the subject of much debate this year as lawmakers make a case for investing that money in schools, roads, housing and other public projects in their own neighborhoods.
Kouchi said he also wants to work with the governor on crafting legislation to collect taxes from bed-and-breakfast establishments and other vacation rentals, and said he embraces Ige’s call for tapping the technology industry to help boost the economy.
Kouchi did tell reporters that senators have some concerns with several Ige Cabinet members up for reappointment. He declined to identify those Cabinet members, but lawmakers have said privately that they include Department of Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda and newly appointed state Budget Director Rod Becker.
Several lawmakers on Wednesday endorsed the idea of increasing the state minimum wage this year, and Kouchi said he expects “serious discussion” on incrementally boosting the wage floor. The minimum wage increased to $10.10 an hour on Jan. 1, 2018.
Ige suggested he has a plan to increase the minimum wage, but declined to give details before he announces his package of initiatives in his State of the State speech on Monday. Ige said he is not contemplating proposals by some Democrats to increase the minimum wage to $17 per hour.
“I think we’ll kind of see how that shakes out in the proposals. We’re looking at $15, but obviously I think there will be a lot of conversation about different levels,” Ige told reporters.
Republican House Minority Leader Gene Ward suggested a minimum wage hike might also win support from his caucus. “We have support for your minimum wage, I know that’s something that a lot of you have been thinking about, but please make it reasonable,” he said. “Not giant steps but reasonable increments, and we’re behind you 100 percent.”
“We need to concentrate on prosperity for all,” said Ward, (R, Kalama Valley- Queen’s Gate-Hawaii Kai). “We’re becoming increasingly the haves and have-nots, and I think we have to narrow that.”
Sen. Kurt Fevella, the lone Republican in the Senate, said, “I’m very concerned with how we achieve increasing the minimum wage.” Rather than increasing the minimum wage statewide, “we should start with a pilot program starting with our government workers first,” he said.
Ward drew applause when he announced the Republicans will offer up a proposal to halve the amount of state construction funding spent on public art, and instead direct that money toward education.
“We have 1 percent of every (construction project) that goes to public art, and what most of you don’t know is they have six warehouses filled with public art,” Ward said.
Kouchi, meanwhile, said the brouhaha over two close elections this fall magnifies the need for the Legislature to make changes to what he called outdated election laws. “They were written at a time when voting was done in a different way.”
A public call for automatic recounts was renewed when Kurt Fevella became the first GOP member of the Senate in two years after beating Matt LoPresti by 116 votes for the vacant 19th (Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point) District, while Trevor Ozawa topped Tommy Waters by 22 votes for the Honolulu City Council District 4 seat. LoPresti’s challenge was dismissed last week while Water’s case is still being considered by the Hawaii Supreme Court.
A bill requiring an automatic recount in close elections was passed in the Senate in 2017 but failed to make it on the agendas of House committees.
“We need to make sure that whether it’s an automatic recount or some other mechanism, that we don’t leave legislative bodies or executive branches in limbo because we cannot resolve the election results,” Kouchi said. “And I believe we need to give clear direction to the courts about what that process should be and so I hope we’ll be able to achieve that.”
The Legislature last year adopted a bill mandating Kauai County go to a vote-by-mail-only system on a pilot basis starting in 2022 as a compromise with those for and against a statewide all-mail law. Lawmakers should again consider adopting a statewide plan, Kouchi said, and Ige also endorsed that idea.