Gov. David Ige began his annual State of the State address Tuesday with a moment of silence for slain Honolulu Police officers Tiffany Enriquez and Kaulike Kalama, describing them both as heroes.
“Our first responders — whether they are police officers, firefighters or lifeguards — take great pride in their professionalism and great satisfaction in knowing they are serving others and our community,” Ige told the crowd at the state Capitol. “If you ask them, they will tell you to a man and woman that they are just doing their job, even when they step into harm’s way. But, in truth, they do so much more, especially when the need for them arises.”
“On Sunday a desperate need did arise and two heroes stepped forward,” Ige said.
Enriquez and Kalama were shot to death Sunday while responding to a landlord-tenant dispute that escalated into a stabbing at a home near Diamond Head, marking the first time in almost 17 years that a police officer was killed in a shooting. Their deaths bring the number of Honolulu officers who have died in the line of duty to 50.
Honolulu Police Chief Susan Ballard received a long standing ovation from the audience when she was introduced by House Speaker Scott Saiki before Ige’s speech, and Ige took a moment to address her directly.
“Chief Ballard, please know that our thoughts and prayers are with the HPD ohana and with the families of these two brave officers,” Ige said. The state Senate, which convened shortly before Ige’s speech, also had a moment of silence in honor of the two officers.
Much of the rest of Ige’s speech focused on ways to cope with the high cost of living in Hawaii, which Ige blamed for Hawaii’s population declines in recent years. “Too many in our community simply gave up and moved away,” he said.
Ige recapped his plans to work with House and Senate leaders to try to ease the cost-of-living burden this year by increasing the state minimum wage and providing targeted tax relief. The governor joined lawmakers last week in unveiling a package of proposals to increase the minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2024 and create a refundable state earned income tax credit for lower-income working families.
Lawmakers also proposed increasing the state’s food excise tax credit to $150 per person for lower-income families, and Ige has said he will sign those proposals into law if they land on his desk this year.
Ige said those tax credits and the modest minimum wage increase “could result in an annual cash benefit of $4,400 to each worker.” Saiki said after the speech that the actual total benefit of the tax credits to a working family would be about $4,600 per year.
Not everyone believes the new wage and tax credit package is a good idea. Nate Hix, director of Living Wage Hawaii, said Ige campaigned in 2018 on a pledge to push for increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and most lawmakers told Democratic Party officials they also support a $15-an-hour wage floor. The $15 minimum is part of the state party platform.
Hix said the difference between $13 minimum wage and a $15 minimum works out to nearly $4,000 a year per worker, “and there’s not $4,000 per worker in tax credits,” he said. “Workers aren’t going to be better off because of the credits and the lower wage.”
The package that Ige and lawmakers are advancing also includes a plan to expand state-funded preschools for 3- and 4-year-olds on state lands, and to develop 17,000 units of leasehold affordable housing on state land over the next decade.
That plan includes spending $200 million on infrastructure on land at the University of Hawaii at West Oahu and $75 million on state land on the neighbor islands. The idea is that by installing infrastructure such as roads and waterlines, the state will speed the development of affordable housing.
House Republicans issued a statement criticizing Ige’s speech, with state Rep. Bob McDermott saying that Ige “addressed the symptoms of high cost of living — which is preschool, housing, low minimum wages — instead of the causes, which is the lack of economic opportunities.”
“He needs to grow the economic pie instead of trying to find ways to slice it even thinner,” said McDermott (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point).
Saiki said after the speech that “we’re just happy that it’s obvious that the governor is supportive of our package. We enjoy working with him and his administration on the initiatives that we’ll be introducing this session. It always helps when the administration is with you because even after we enact this legislation, it will be up to the administration to implement.”
That cooperative tone is a significant shift for lawmakers and Ige from previous years when lawmakers clashed with the governor over his budgets and budget restrictions, the best ways to deal with the state’s homeless problem, and other issues. Much of the House and Senate leadership endorsed former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa in her unsuccessful bid to replace Ige as governor in 2018.
On the issue of homelessness, Ige cited statistics showing his administration increased the number of people moving into permanent housing by 73%, placing on average more than 600 people per month into permanent housing from 2016 to 2019.
Ige also took time to defend his actions in coping with the protests on Mauna Kea by activists opposed to the $1.4 billion Thirty Meter Telescope.
Those protests have stalled work on the project, and the TMT opponents say they will never allow the telescope to be built. Sponsors of the project spent a decade obtaining the required state and county permits for TMT, but the protesters consider the project to be a desecration of a mountain that many Hawaiians consider to be sacred.
Coping with those protests has cost the state $15 million so far, according to Ige, and more money is budgeted for this year and next year to deal with the issue. Ige has been criticized for failing to clear the protesters off Mauna Kea Access Road, but the governor said it’s not that simple.
“Emotions have run high on both sides. The arguments are strong on both sides, and that’s what makes the situation so difficult,” Ige said. “There is no easy or quick solution. We will have to work hard if we want to resolve this conflict. But I truly believe it can be resolved if we put our heads and hearts together.”
Ige acknowledged some have urged him to take strong measures against the protesters, and said “that would have been the easier course. But it is not just the authority of law that is at stake.”
“What is also at risk is the glue that always bound us together, that sense of aloha,” he said. “It is the thing that underpins our laws and gives them meaning and an ethical foundation. That trust in each other is also sacred, and I will not break that bond no matter how convenient or easy.”
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