Legislators: spend $ 1 billion in rainy days funds on social services instead
Legislative leaders want to direct $ 1 billion set aside for the state’s rainy day fund to various social services, including some programs to benefit the homeless statewide.
Speaker of the House Scott Saiki and Speaker of the Senate Ron Kouchi briefly touched on some of their priorities for the next legislative session during a segment of the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s “Spotlight” program.
In December, Governor David Ige announced a $ 16.9 billion budget proposal bolstered by an increase in tax revenue last year. Ige has offered to set aside $ 1 billion in the state’s reserve fund to prepare for future budget crises.
State Budget Director Craig Hirai on Tuesday defended the Ige administration’s decision to put money into the state’s piggy bank. He warned lawmakers that Hawaii should expect less relief funding from the federal government in the years to come.
He said the $ 1 billion deposit in the rainy day fund, which currently holds around $ 350 million, would constitute “a strong reserve for the future.”
“As we have seen, unexpected things like omicron crept up on us,” Hirai said. “The economic effects of this will have to be worked out during the session.”
But Saiki and Kouchi demand that the money go elsewhere. Saiki said he didn’t think the governor’s rainy day proposal “would survive the legislative process this year.”
“What we need to do is use this additional tax revenue to fund these unmet needs that have suffered in recent years,” Saiki said. “We should fix the things that need to be fixed now with this additional tax revenue.”
Kouchi said part of these funds should be spent on ongoing programs such as the Ohana zones, which provide basic services to the homeless. The objective is to move them to permanent accommodation.
The program is slated to expire in 2023, but the administration could ask for $ 15 million to continue until 2026.
Funding for transitional housing and alternative housing options for the homeless should also be a budget priority, Kouchi said. This money could also be used to develop more affordable housing units in the state.
“The homeless situation has only worsened during the pandemic,” Kouchi said. “We have to make that kind of (financial) commitment.”
Representative Nadine Nakamura, chair of the House Housing Committee, plans to introduce a series of bills to address these issues.
“There is a whole continuum of housing that we need to focus on, from extremely low income, lower income, moderate income housing, to the workforce and the housing market,” Nakamura said in an interview.
Harnessing unused federal block grants to give money to families in need, expanding Ohana areas and diverting funds to build more rental housing are among the proposals.
“I think the governor’s budget is going to be looked at to see how we might spend the funds, to help some families who might need it,” Nakamura said.
The Legislative Assembly will also be faced with other issues this session, which begins on January 19.
Kouchi and Saiki plan to review bills to limit the governor’s emergency powers. Saiki said the proposals would allow the legislature to vote against emergency proclamations or parts of those proclamations after a certain period of time.
This would require a two-thirds vote in both the 51-seat House and the 25-member Senate.
The two legislative leaders are also still grappling with a recent Hawaii Supreme Court ruling that ended the practice of gutting the content of bills and replacing them with completely different language, sometimes at the end of the day. session and with little warning.
Saiki said he agrees with the court’s ruling and believes the public should be able to follow the progress of bills as they move through the Legislature. However, he noted cases that may be more difficult with the court ruling.
“There are times when there is an emergency, and we have to amend a bill to deal with an emergency,” Saiki said. “I think we will have to figure out how to handle this in the future.”