HONOLULU — Lawmakers opened a new session of the Hawaii Legislature on Wednesday with vows to address the state’s punishingly high cost of living so families don’t have to abandon the islands for cheaper places.
House Speaker Scott Saiki noted Hawaii’s population has declined for the third year in a row.
“This is something that we take very seriously. It bothers the members of our body to see this happening under our watch,” Saiki told reporters. Lawmakers need to fix problems working families face on a daily basis, he said.
The plans include increasing the minimum wage, making the state’s earned income tax credit refundable, and using state lands to develop leasehold housing. The measures would also expand early childhood education and create a new agency that will oversee major construction projects and repairs at public schools.
The House and Senate Democratic majorities and Gov. David Ige have already agreed to the outlines of the proposals.
Ige acknowledged there was much to still work out, including how the state would find and train enough teachers to instruct thousands more 3- and 4-year-olds. He said bold action was needed.
“Business as usual is not good enough. I think the package is an effort to say we need to get it done,” Ige told reporters at a news conference.
Rep. Gene Ward, a Republican leading the House minority caucus, said he was glad the majority admitted people were leaving Hawaii and the cost of living was “out of control.” Ward said he hoped Saiki wasn’t overpromising on something he won’t be able to deliver.
Ward said lawmakers need to focus on what fuels a robust economy and grow the economy instead of just “cutting it in pieces.” He also expressed concern at how the state would pay for the initiatives.
“Show us the money that we can afford to do that,” Ward said.
Senate President Ron Kouchi said lawmakers have been criticized over the years for agreeing on measures so late in the session there’s not enough time for public input. Kouchi said he hoped presenting ideas early will include more people in discussions.
“We are hoping to create a more transparent process. We are hoping to create a process that is going to engage our community,” Kouchi said during remarks on the Senate floor.
The measures respond in part to problems highlighted in a report sponsored by Aloha United Way showing that half of Hawaii’s residents struggled to make ends meet.
The study found 37% of Hawaii’s population have jobs yet can’t afford basic necessities to remain stable and self-sufficient. Another 11% of households live below the federal poverty level.
Opponents of the Thirty Meter Telescope’s construction on Mauna Kea brought their protest to the Capitol rotunda, chanting the slogan “Ku Kia’i Mauna” and listening to speeches.
Kaho’okahi Kanuha, a protest leader, said he wanted to “remind this building that times are changing in Hawaii.”
“The years of just running Hawaiians over and pushing them out however they wish … those days are over. We’re not going to allow it. And we’re going to organize, and we’re going to make sure that we can pass on our home to our keiki. And that they can recognize it as our home,” Kanuha said.