HONOLULU — State lawmakers opened the 2018 Legislative Session on Wednesday with vows to tackle the housing crisis and homelessness. They also pledged to make sure the state never again experiences a false alarm missile alert like last weekend’s.
Senate President Ronald Kouchi said Wednesday said it’s going to be important for lawmakers to keep their commitment to build affordable housing near stations along Honolulu’s planned rail line.
Kouchi told lawmakers they will have to make sure they work with communities on their plans. He noted the cautionary tale of a 2,000-unit affordable housing project planned for Honolulu that had to be downsized to 800 units because of community opposition.
The new session of the Legislature started Wednesday. It’s scheduled to last through early May.
In the House, Speaker Scott Saiki told his fellow lawmakers in a speech that Hawaii has a shortage of 65,000 housing units. He reminded them the state has set a goal of building 22,500 affordable units by 2026.
“There’s a huge gap between what our working families are able to pay and the cost of building new housing in Hawaii,” Saiki said. He said the state should address financing gaps by considering boosting subsidies for rent, infrastructure and construction.
House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said lawmakers will need to work with Honolulu, nonprofit organizations and the private sector to address homelessness. She said “it’s doable” to find money for programs, noting it comes down to setting priorities for what lawmakers want to accomplish.
Saiki said House members know resources are finite and everything can’t be a priority.
“But we are prepared to make some hard decisions and draw some lines this year,” he said.
The latest federal data shows Hawaii had 51 homeless people for every 10,000 residents last year, the highest ratio of any state.
Lawmakers were also looking to address the false alarm missile alert the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency sent to cellphones Saturday morning, panicking residents and visitors. It took the agency 38 minutes to rescind the alert.
Their work on this issue will get underway Friday when the House and Senate public safety committees hold a joint hearing on the mishap.
Kouchi said lawmakers will work with Gov. David Ige’s administration to make sure every resident and guest of the state is safe. He said the state must also ensure everyone gets accurate information.
Saiki told reporters that once lawmakers find out more they will exercise more oversight and ensure the administration makes the changes that need to be made.
Next door to the state Capitol, protesters marked the 125th anniversary of the overthrow of the Hawaiian monarchy with a march to Iolani Palace.
Participants made offerings at the nearby King Kamehameha and Queen Liliuokalani statues, delivered speeches, played music and danced hula.
“We came here because of the queen and we talked about unity all day today,” activist Walter Ritte said.
Hawaiian civic clubs, Office of Hawaiian Affairs officials and Hawaiian sovereignty campaigners were all at the event.
Leon Kaulahao Siu, foreign minister of the Hawaiian Kingdom, which claims sovereignty over Hawaii, estimated the crowd size at several thousand people.
Saiki acknowledged the anniversary in House chambers by calling for “a moment of contemplation” at the start of the session.
Ige said in a statement said the queen “put her people first, before money or power.”
“She chose the common good for a better collective existence. I believe we must follow her example as we move forward together as one people,” Ige said.