Column: Do legislators feel ‘fierce urgency of now’?
OK. So, yes. We are all frustrated. Government isn’t working the way it should. Not in Washington, D,C. Not in Hawaii.
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OK. So, yes. We are all frustrated. Government isn’t working the way it should. Not in Washington, D,C. Not in Hawaii. Not at the level of state, county or city. That’s how over 60% of the people feel, according to the Star- Advertiser’s Hawaii Poll.
But in these deeply disquieting times we can insist on optimism. Let’s insist that our elected representatives pick up exactly where they left off on critical bills they failed to pass for no good reason after the measures had made their way through multiple committees and umpteen hearings. Let’s insist that legislators pass them as soon as they re-convene in January. “Never happens,” say the veterans of past legislative sessions.
But these are far from ordinary times. There isn’t enough affordable housing for ordinary workers, yet $35 million penthouses are being dangled before foreign buyers. This is beyond obscene.
Imagine if this supposedly blue state actually passed a living wage, actually acted on a Democratic priority? Stranger things have happened. Would anyone have imagined that Jamie Dimon, speaking for the Business Roundtable, would talk about needing to compensate employees fairly so they could live lives with meaning and dignity? And yet he just did.
Will our Hawaii Business Roundtable follow suit? Will the Honolulu Chamber of Commerce acknowledge that representing business owners cannot mean opposing a living wage for the workers who keep those businesses going? If business owners deserve to reap a profit, workers surely deserve wages that allow them to afford the bare basics.
The Chamber and business owners can afford the luxury of lamenting the need to appear at hearings to argue against paying a living wage. But the very people who desperately need a living wage are unable to advocate for themselves because they are too busy running from one low-paying job to another.
This year there was such a chorus of voices from all quarters — mental health experts, doctors, teachers, clergy, students, nonprofits providing social services, enlightened small businesses, media executives, Democratic Party leaders, past and present — that it looked as if we might actually enact a living wage.
Yet, in the face of the state’s own data telling them that people in Hawaii need to make at least $17 an hour to simply survive, our elected representatives dropped the ball.
Legislators were fine with accepting a generous raise for themselves while thousands of working families teeter on the brink of houselessness, if they are not already houseless.
The representatives whose jobs depend on the votes of ordinary people were fine with letting ordinary working people — families, including children and the elderly and the ill — fend for themselves. And if that means camping on the sidewalks of this beautiful city, legislators apparently said, “so be it.”
But people are watching. The Hawaii Poll tells us that most people believe, not what government says, but what their eyes see: houselessness is growing.
House Speaker Scott Saiki can address this loss of confidence in government by picking the bill up right where he dropped it, and getting it across the finish line.
It is the second year of a biennium. Therefore, in a two-year session any bill introduced in the first (odd-numbered) year that has not passed may be picked up in the second year at the point where it was stopped in its tracks. The fact that it is rarely done is no excuse for not doing it. Certainly not in this time of crisis.
Legislators can spare everyone the circus and cost of multiple hearings, and simply make the living wage bill their first order of business in January. That just might begin to restore faith in a system that the Hawaii Poll tells us has failed too many people on too many fronts.
Dawn Morais Webster works with nonprofits on issues of community well-being; she is an adjunct instructor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa.