Hawai'i State News

Senate president on opening day of 2024 Hawai‘i Legislative Session: ‘Let’s go and fiercely tackle the problems ahead of us’

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Hawai’i state Senate President Ronald Kouchi opened the chamber’s 2024 session Wednesday with a quote from Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday was celebrated throughout the nation Monday.

Hawai‘i Senate President Ronald Kouchi of Kaua‘i gives his remarks Wednesday in the Senate chamber at the state Capitol in Honolulu during opening day of the Hawai‘i Legislature’s 2024 session. (Screenshot from video)

“From his Sermon on the Mount, he said, ‘All life is inter-related. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly,'” said the Kaua‘i lawmaker who has been president of the state Senate since 2015. “‘We are made to live together because of the inter-related structure of reality.'”

It’s that interconnectedness and collaboration between state and county governments, private and public sectors and the community that will be necessary to take on the issues facing the state during this legislative session and beyond.

Everyone throughout the islands has been impacted by the Aug. 8, 2023, wildfires on Maui that destroyed Lāhainā and killed nearly 100 people. It was the deadliest wildfire in more than a century in the United States.

Kouchi said he and his colleagues know the devastation and loss of life the blazes wrought on the Valley Isle and how difficult it will be going forward as the island continues to recover and rebuild. Wildfire mitigation — along with stewardship and management of Maui lands — is at the top of the Senate’s priorities this session.

An aerial photo from Aug. 11, 2023, of a portion of devastated Lāhainā on Maui following the deadly Aug. 8 wildfire. (File photo courtesy of the Hawai‘i Department of Land and Natural Resources)

But not everyone is from Maui.


“As we go forward, we want to ensure that it doesn’t happen on any other island,” he said. “So the stewardship and land management fire mitigation must be done on each of our islands to ensure the safety of each of our residents and their property.”

The Senate is committed to improving the state’s emergency preparedness, recovery and resilience, according to a list of priorities the chamber’s majority, led by Big Island Sen. Dru Kanuha, announced prior to Wednesday’s opening session.

The majority said that includes ensuring departments and agencies have access to education and resources such as personnel necessary to prepare for and mitigate damage, supporting ongoing relief efforts in Lāhainā, developing a statewide wildfire mitigation plan and risk assessment, funding the Division of Forestry and Wildlife, establishing programs to better prepare for electrical grid and other critical infrastructure for emergencies, revisiting the authority of the Commission on Water Resource Management, forming a fire risk task force and looking for permanent funding for the Hawai‘i Wildfire Management Organization.

Making sure there are affordable choices for housing for those Maui residents displaced because of the fires amid a housing shortage crisis faced by a stressed and expensive market is another top priority and one that also extends throughout the state.

Hawai‘i state senators stand and listen as the national anthem is sung Wednesday morning during opening session for the 2024 legislative session at the state Capitol in Honolulu. (Screenshot from video)

Kouchi said the lack of affordable housing is the largest obstacle for employers in the way of recruiting and retaining employees.


In his own District 8 on Kaua‘i, the superintendent of schools offered 28 new teachers positions last year. They accepted, but before they could begin, all 28 turned the positions down because they couldn’t find housing they could afford based on the salary they would make.

Efforts to support housing laid out by the majority include expanding housing into business and industrial zones, increasing access to affordable housing with income-blind housing and a reform of private developer subsidies, revisiting the landlord-tenant code, investing in housing infrastructure and broadening financing options and implementing property insurance requirements and exemptions, among others.

Helping the state’s asset-limited, income-constrained and employed, or ALICE, population also remains a priority for the Senate with one of the cornerstones achieving universal pre-kindergarten. Kouchi said Hawai‘i Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, who is leading the charge and was present in the Senate gallery Wednesday during opening session, reported last week she is ahead of schedule in getting classroom seats available.

“There is no argument that if you go to preschool, you have better educational outcomes during your K-12 years,” the Senate president said. “So we are trying to create a more level playing field for every child in the state to have a good foundation to make sure that they can maximize their educational opportunities.”

For ALICE families, it costs between $1,500 and $1,800 a month for child care. Creating more opportunity for children to attend pre-kindergarten, and getting that educational foundation, will take some of that pressure off parents knowing their keiki are in safe spaces, learning, and they don’t have to pay that monthly child care bill.


The issues of child care, its cost and the choices parents throughout the state make to be able to meet their obligations while making sure their keiki are prepared for the future are particularly important and real to Kouchi.

His wife, for the first time since 2011, is not in Honolulu with him this session because she decided to stay home on Kaua‘i and be a full-time babysitter for their grandson, who was born during the final week of the 2023 legislative session.

Members of the public and other officials watch from the gallery during opening session of the Hawai‘i Senate on Wednesday morning at the state Capitol in Honolulu. (Screenshot from video)

“You can count on me as someone who is living through this experience today to be at your side as we go forward,” Kouchi said.

During this session, the Senate majority is committed to expanding education and the state’s education workforce by increasing access to quality early childhood education, creating incentives for attracting qualified teachers such as teacher housing and improving the University of Hawai‘i system by focusing on student needs.

Better educational outcomes are boosted by better nutrition and the Hawai‘i Department of Education feeds 100,000 people a day: “It’s the largest restaurant in Hawai‘i,” Kouchi said.

Getting more locally produced food on the plates in schools leads to more food security throughout Hawai‘i. If just half of the food on school menus is produced by the state’s farmers, along with the two state hospitals already feeding patients with 60% locally sourced food, Kouchi said the needle will be moved in a huge way for the agricultural community. Efforts to buy more local food will continue moving forward.

It also makes a difference in wildfire mitigation efforts.

“What is the best fire mitigation program we can have?” Kouchi asked his colleagues. “That would be having the land in active use. The problem is as the plantations have closed, too much of the land has gone fallow and is dry.”

Fostering sustainability and reliability in food production is a significant area of focus for the Senate majority, which is prioritizing restoring and preserving local agriculture in the state by exploring sustainable foods, restoring healthy soils, establishing food security efforts, mitigating the effects of and eradicating invasive species and improving the Agribusiness Development Corp.

Getting everybody to the table, including department chiefs, county officials and people from the private sector, outside their silos and away from protecting their turf, to tackle the issues is key. Kouchi said it’s that kind of collaboration and interconnectedness that will make the Legislature and the state successful in its endeavors.

“I think this is a change in approach that will be welcomed by the counties,” said Hawai‘i County Council Chairwoman Heather Kimball, who was present in the Senate gallery during opening session representing not only Hawai‘i County but also as treasurer of the Hawai‘i State Association of Counties.

She said Kouchi’s focus on interconnections throughout the state in light of the Maui disaster and priorities of housing, early childhood education and agriculture, especially the state Education Department buying more local food, all align with Hawai‘i County’s priorities and goals.

The Hawai‘i state Capitol in Honolulu. (Big Island Now file photo)

Other priorities of the Senate majority during the 2024 session include:

  • Enhancing the state’s workforce by increasing support for the long-term health care insustry, growing the medical and nursing workforce and investigating what prevents recruitment of professionals from outside the islands.
  • Economic development and infrastructure with a focus on using private-public partnerships and off-balance sheet financing proposed by the Hawai‘i Department of Budget and Finance to identify alternative revenue streams for programs and projects as well as increasing investments in repairs of state facilities on each island and investing in emerging industries to diversity Hawai‘i’s economy.
  • Protecting the state’s unique environment and resources through investing in biosecurity, exploring the feasibility of visitor impact fees and carbon taxes and expanding ways in which the state parks special fund can be used, among other initiatives.
  • Continuing to support permanent housing for homeless individuals and supporting existing and innovative homeless outreach and intervention.
  • Before his remarks, Kouchi talked about the daunting task and difficulty dealing with the tragedy on Maui. He was curious to see how his Senate colleagues would respond and what the attitude on opening day would be.

As Kouchi watched members warmly greeting each other, posing for pictures and returning to the state Capitol in Honolulu, he saw they were ready to go to work and do the job for which they all were elected.

“In watching the body language and the camaraderie, you give me great hope and optimism about what we will be able to accomplish in the upcoming session,” he said.

In closing, he used another quote from Martin Luther King Jr. to rally the Senate as it moves forward to tackle the hard job it faces this session.

“‘We are now faced with the fact that tomorrow is today,'” Kouchi said. “‘We are confronted with the fierce urgency of now.’ … Let’s go and fiercely tackle the problems ahead of us.”

Nathan Christophel
Nathan Christophel is a full-time reporter with Pacific Media Group. He has more than 25 years of experience in journalism as a reporter, copy editor and page designer. He previously worked at the Hawaii Tribune-Herald in Hilo. Nathan can be reached at nathan@bigislandnow.com
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