Hawai‘i Legislature to Reconvene Briefly in May

May 7, 2020, 2:09 PM HST (Updated May 7, 2020, 2:09 PM)
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House Speaker Scott Saiki. Courtesy photo.

The Hawai‘i State Legislature will reconvene on Monday, May 11 to address what it projects to be a $1 billion budgetary shortfall due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gov. David Ige has suggested the possibility of 10% or 20% pay cuts for state workers, including nurses and first responders, as a way to cover lost transient accommodations tax, general excise tax and income tax revenues. House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi said the primary goal of the temporary resumption of the session is to come up with an alternative to pay cuts.

“Basically, (the Senate Ways & Means and House Finance Committees’) approach is to use different tools to address the budget shortfall,” Saiki said. “They will be looking at generating some revenue savings by addressing the lapses in the budget, as well as vacancies throughout state government.”

The committees will also be looking at authorizing the governor to borrow funds, the Speaker continued. One possible borrowing source is the federal government’s Liquidity Fund, which is available to state and county governments in the form of a loan plan. The other potential program involves issuing pension obligation bonds, in which the state could borrow money to pay its pension obligations this year.

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Exactly how much money the state needs to creatively find and/or borrow remains a matter of discussion. While the Legislature has projected the loss of revenues will total $1 billion, Gov. Ige has placed the figure closer to $1.5 or $1.6 billion.

Saiki said legislators will receive a tax report for the month of April in the coming days, which will give them their first concrete piece of data to gauge revenue losses in the short-term. The data should allow for more accurate predictions of tax revenue moving forward based on what portions of the economy open up, and to what degree, over the coming weeks and months.

The Ways & Means and Finance Committees will work off of the Legislature’s supplemental budget bill, which is still alive after having passed the House and crossing over to the Senate.

The second point of emphasis during the abbreviated resumption of session this month, which is expected to last between 6 and 10 legislative workdays, is to comb through around 260 gubernatorial messages, as well as have Committee Chairs move reports through hearings.

Senate President Ronald Kouchi. State Senate courtesy photo.

Kouchi said a primary reason legislators decided to reconvene is that airport traffic is beginning to increase and the Legislature needs to contribute to the formation of a concrete contact-tracing plan to manage the return of any sort of mass tourism.

Lawmakers have been critical of the Hawai‘i Department of Transportation’s handling of mandatory travel quarantine protocol, as well as the Department of Health‘s contact-tracing policies to this point, and want to offer some oversight and direction.

The Senate president added that returning tourism safely will take more testing capacity, along with rapid testing kits, which could allow people to be tested before their arrival. This, in turn, would take some of the economic bite out of the mandatory travel quarantine, as those who test negative for COVID-19 could theoretically be allowed to move and spend freely across all islands immediately upon their arrival.

“It is my hope that there will be a better plan to implement quarantine,” Kouchi said. “It’s been uppermost in the minds of all of the residents of this state who have sacrificed greatly in personal liberty, as well as (made financial sacrifices), to save the lives of their fellow neighbors. The only way the virus really can get back in is from outside, so we need to have protocols in place to ensure that doesn’t (happen).”

Also on the agenda for May’s legislative stint are the review and passage of a budget request from the Hawai‘i Emergency Management Agency and requests from neighbor island counties for federal CARES Act funding.

Only Honolulu County received direct CARES Act funding because the rest of the counties’ populations are too small to qualify. However, the state has received billions in federal aid packages, portions of which are intended for Hawai‘i, Maui and Kaua‘i Counties.

Hawai’i State Legislature file photo.

While the Legislature will not complete the 60 days remaining in the 2020 session in their entirety, and the current priorities for May aren’t expected to extend beyond a couple of calendar weeks, Hawai‘i legislators are hoping to take up some unfinished business later this summer from when the session went into indefinite recess March 17.

Saiki said legislative hopes include a return in June, when lawmakers would prioritize two categories of bills — events that require emergency action between now and the end of June, as well as extending laws set to sunset before the start of the new fiscal year on July 1.

Most, if not all, legislators are expected to return to the State Capitol for May’s mini-session, meaning social distancing requirements will be needed to govern affairs.

Only the Committees on Ways & Means and Finance will hold meetings, which will be done in the auditorium for spacing concerns. Only written testimony is likely to be accepted for these meetings, legislative leadership said Thursday.

As for floor sessions, the gallery will be utilized so that legislators can observe at least six feet of distance between each other.

Only one entrance/exit to the Capitol Building will be used daily, and all those coming and going will be temperature screened — hopefully by trained members of the Hawai‘i National Guard, Saiki said. All other Capitol operations outside of legislative business will be essentially shut down during the session.

Confirmation hearings and other meetings will be streamed live on Olelo Media TV.

Legislators traveling from outer islands will be subject to interisland travel rules, moving to and from their places of residence and work only while in Honolulu. Upon return to their home islands, they will not face quarantine unless they are suspected to have contracted coronavirus.

Max Dible
Max Dible is the News Director for both Big Island Now and Kauai Now. He also serves as News Director for Pacific Media Group's Hawai‘i Island family of radio stations. He formerly worked as a community reporter for West Hawai‘i Today in Kailua-Kona from 2016 to 2019. Before that, he was a sports editor, sports reporter, and radio talk show personality covering college athletics in Iowa. He's won several regional and national journalism awards, at both the collegiate and professional levels, for breaking news, long-form feature writing, and his work as a sports columnist.

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