Hawaii’s lawmakers will get a B-Plus for their work this year, says a local public policy expert

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As state legislatures congratulate themselves for pumping big bucks into Hawaii Native affairs and raising the minimum wage, a local public policy expert says he would give their work a B-Plus rating.

According to the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement, approved measures from the 2022 legislative session, which ended Thursday, will provide about $1 billion for Hawaiian indigenous affairs.

When signed by Governor David Ige, HB2511 will pour $600 million into the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. SB 2021 would settle a decades-old dispute over the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ share of Public Land Trust revenues. and SB3041 is a $328 million settlement for all claims by beneficiaries of Home Lands who have filed embezzlement suits against the state.

Lawmakers have also ticked off other priorities, raising the minimum wage to $18 by 2028 and helping working families by extending the earned income tax credit. It’s been a difficult time during this pandemic, but the unexpected surplus meant the House and Senate could be more impactful financially.

Colin Moore, Director of Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa, said the Legislature did well this session, but they were “playing the game in easy mode”.

“They passed a lot of great legislation, you know, the huge sum of money going to DHHL, increasing funding for OHA, raising the minimum wage and even setting aside a good chunk of money for the state’s rainy day fund, which is hurricane relief fund. That’s all great. But to an extent they were able to because they had a $2 billion surplus, more money than they thought they would have,” Moore said.

And with all 76 MPs up for re-election, Moore said this is the time to fund her priorities.

“That’s how they can send out those mailings and remind their constituents of everything they’ve done. “I understand that the Senate President (Ron Kouchi) gave them an A, I think I would give them a B-Plus.”

The legislature was marred by the bribery scandal involving former Senator J. Kalani English and Rep. Ty Cullen, Moore said. Both admitted in court that they accepted bribes to steer legislation related to cesspools.

“I want to stress that even by national standards, this is a major corruption scandal,” Moore told The Conversation. “I won’t be surprised if you see a lot of candidates this time trying to address this when running for re-election – to emphasize their concern for ethics.”

“I think at the root is some kind of cultural issue in the legislature, I mean, a certain level of arrogance that would lead lawmakers to think they’re almost untouchable,” he said.

Moore said the only way to solve this problem is more challengers in the election — more democracy.

Lawmakers and council members will play musical chairs in this year’s election, Moore said. Some members of the House of Representatives are trying to get into the Senate, while Honolulu councilors are running for seats in the Legislature.

“The game will not change too much. We have a pretty stable political class here in Hawaii, so there will be a little reshuffling, but I don’t think there will be much change out of this election, particularly in the legislature,” he added.

This interview aired on The Conversation on May 6, 2022. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11am on HPR-1.

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