20/20 vision and decisive action by our state legislature is needed now more than ever. Hawaii cannot afford to wait until 2021.
The State House and Senate have each convened a “Special Committee on COVID-19”. Ostensibly the mission and goal of each committee is to monitor and review the pandemics’ economic impacts, and the executive branch’s management of the situation. Unfortunately, neither committee provides an opportunity for public input or testimony. Citizen input is a valuable and necessary component of any successful information gathering process and should be welcomed, not prohibited.
It would seem that by now both legislative committees have done their due diligence and that our legislature at some point soon will actually begin legislating. Whether the 2020 Session reconvenes in May and/or extends into a special session in June or even July, the work can and should begin now.
Word on the street however, is that leadership in the House and Senate is considering simply putting everything off until January of 2021. Apparently, they are thinking to “gavel in” the session around May 1, schedule a handful of hearings necessary to pass and fund Grant-In-Aid (GIA) requests and Capital Improvement Projects (CIP), and put off all other work until 2021.
Needless to say, I believe adjourning without addressing the many critical issues facing our community now, would be a gross failure of legislative leadership. There is much work to be done and no valid reason why the legislature cannot do it, this year.
Legislators can and should be doing the nitty-gritty work now, remotely. Just as the COVID-19 Special Committees are meeting, so can other committees of the House and Senate. Proposed bill language can be discussed remotely with experts and stakeholders, and possible amendments refined.
At some point in the coming few months, Hawaii will start reopening both business and government. The legislature could then be reconvened and extended into June or July as may be needed. There is no shortage of legislative “vehicles” (bills), and the appropriate public hearings could be held to comply with open government laws and avoid issues associated with “gut and replace”.
Hawaii needs more than just a blanket approval of so-called “shovel ready” projects and pending GIA funding.
There are many issues that simply cannot wait until 2021.
Nearly 25% of Hawaii’s workers are now unemployed. Without employment, most are also now without health insurance. Whether through an expansion of Med-Quest or via other means our legislature must develop and fund health coverage for these workers.
In order to fully reopen our economy, incoming travelers must be screened and tested for COVID-19. A statewide screening and testing program must be established with appropriate personnel hired and trained to implement it. This requires legislative action.
It is essential that worker rights be protected during the economic recovery period and beyond. Recently laid-off workers must be given first preference to return to their former jobs under the same terms that were previously held. The government must not allow nor reward businesses who attempt a shift to part-time, no health insurance, lower-wage workers.
The Earn Income Tax Credit and other tax credits aimed at low income working people along with the minuscule increase in the minimum wage must be preserved and passed into law. Our state budget must not be balanced on the backs of low income working people.
The fragility of our food supply chain has become more apparent than ever. Providing both public policy and tangible financial support to local farmers growing food for local consumption is crucially important and should not have to wait until 2021. Our farmers need help now.
Emergency funding could and should be used to support “remote access” that will allow all residents access to the legislative process and meaningful public participation, regardless of where they reside. According to the National Council on State Legislatures (NCSL), Alaska began holding remote hearings for residents in 1978. In 2014, more than 4,000 citizens participated remotely in 5,000 hours of legislative teleconferences. Here in the islands, Hawaii County and Maui County both allow residents to testify via teleconference from remote locations. Given the COVID-19 limitations on “social distancing” and other “stay-at-home rules, now more than ever the Hawaii State Legislature needs to make universal remote access a reality.
GIA funding should be substantially increased and new applications from entrepreneurs focused on food-self sufficiency, import-substitution, recycling, economic diversification, and job creation should be encouraged. Construction projects should be funded only if they truly meet the needs of the community, and are genuine “shovel ready,” rather than just pet projects located in some influential legislators district.
Waiting until 2021 to tackle these and many other issues facing our state would be an unequivocal failure in leadership. I am hopeful and cautiously optimistic that those elected to high office, will not let us down.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the Hawaii State Senate, where he was Majority Leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.