Big Isle lawmakers mixed on how state Legislature will proceed

With the state Legislature on an indefinite recess, Big Island legislators are split whether the session will meaningfully resume this year.

Senate President Ronald Kouchi and House Speaker Scott Saiki on Monday said the 2020 legislative session was suspended indefinitely to comply with guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to mitigate the risk of spreading the COVID-19 coronavirus.

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With the Legislature in recess, bills that were in process before Monday are technically still alive and will still be heard when the session resumes. But because that date is still unknown, many Big Island lawmakers are unsure how many bills — if any — will make it through the Legislature this year.

“Frankly, based on what we’re seeing around the world with this pandemic, I think it’s unlikely that we come back for a regular session,” said South Kona Rep. Richard Creagan. “Most of these bills are just going to have to start over next year.”

Kona Rep. Nicole Lowen disagreed, saying she has “every expectation to come back to a full session and continue these bills.”

Most lawmakers agreed that some bills might still survive, but the priorities of the state will have drastically changed by the time the recess ends.

“The reality is that, because of COVID-19, our supplementary budget is going to look very different,” said Puna Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, adding that “high-money bills” are unlikely to be approved.

Hamakua Rep. Mark Nakashima agreed, predicting that any bill that would appropriate state funds will not make it out of the legislative session.

“All appropriation bills are on life support now,” Nakashima said.

Nakashima and fellow Hilo Rep. Chris Todd said the Legislature likely will re-prioritize surviving bills to favor proposals for what Todd called “shovel-ready” construction projects in an effort to stimulate an economy that is already weakening as a result of the global pandemic.

However, all of the legislators interviewed agreed that the response to the coronavirus crisis by state and county agencies has been mixed at best.

“It’s strange to me that Hawaii County Mayor Harry Kim is not abiding by the rules set by the governor,” said Hilo Sen. Lorraine Inouye, who added that she was concerned that Kim had not ordered nonessential county workers to work from home.

Nearly all legislators interviewed expressed wishes for the state and county to take a more forceful stand in addressing the crisis.

Nakashima said he is worried that Kim seems to want to keep the county operating as usual despite the likelihood of spreading the virus, and Inouye said she has received dozens of calls from constituents worried about the Department of Education’s decision to return children and teachers to school en masse in April.

“The only way to flatten the curve is with immediate and drastic action,” said Todd, referring to a widely circulated graph demonstrating that increasing social isolation will make fewer people contract COVID-19 and over a more gradual period.

Creagan said the state and county have the ability to shut down the pandemic altogether on the Big Island by simply closing all travel to and from the state and between islands. The representative drew comparisons to the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic, which infected more than 500 million people around the world, but never touched American Samoa, which had quarantined all boats arriving at the island.

“We’re the most isolated island in the world, so we can control this so much better than any other state,” Creagan said. “If we stop tourism now, it’s going to hurt, but we’ll have a better chance of coming back more quickly.”

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Echoing a turn of phrase that many of her fellow lawmakers employed, Lowen said she would “rather be accused of doing too much and overreacting than of not doing enough.”

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.

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