One of the things the Legislature does is figure out how to count. As it turns out, “60 days” has many meanings.
Hawaii’s state Constitution says the Legislature shall meet every year and the “regular session shall be limited to a period of 60 days.”
The catch is the time period. A 60-day session actually means up to 60 days; there is nothing saying it can’t be less than 60 days.
Last month, legislative leaders made history when they put the Legislature into an undetermined recess on March 16, the day before Gov. David Ige’s emergency orders started shutting down much of the state government because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Never before has such uncertainty taken control of state legislative proceedings.
“We did not specify a return date,’ House Speaker Scott Saiki explained in an interview. “The suspension was driven by a CDC (Centers for Disease Control) guideline calling for people to not be in gatherings of 10 or more, for the next eight weeks.”
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, Ways and Means Committee chairman, added that “Because there is no limit provided in the Constitution for the length of the recess, it appears the Legislature can recess for an indefinite period of time.”
Specifically, what needs to be done this year? Not the budget — the original state budget was passed last year, so this would be a supplemental budget and the already tight-fisted House Finance chairwoman, Rep. Sylvia Luke, said the approaching national recession means the state is not going to be spending more anyway.
When it recessed, only one bill had been sent to the governor, House Bill 2661, appropriating funds to run the state Legislature.
On a technical note, Luke cautioned that the Legislature may be legally required to go into session to pass a resolution formally adjourning.
“Neither house shall adjourn during any session of the Legislature for more than three days or sine die, without the consent of the other,” reads the state Constitution.
“If the recess goes into May, the end of May, there is less of a reason for the Legislature to come back to do significant work,” Luke said.
“If we come back to come back in June or July, it doesn’t make sense unless the governor needs a constitutional amendment for some specific reason.”
Although Luke and Ige are not political allies, Luke said she “personally talks frequently with the governor.” Also she has loaned members of her Finance Committee staff, who have detailed knowledge of the budget, to Ige.
“Our priority is supporting the administration to make sure our residents have their basic needs met. This is not the time to figure out where the executive and legislative lines are and if we are crossing the lines between legislative and executive,” Luke said.
Saiki said there are some details of the federal emergency provisions that are dedicating billions of dollars to Hawaii assistance that may need some legislative tidying up.
For instance, one “bucket of money” is $1.25 billion in assistance, Saiki said. The state gets $880 million with the rest going to the counties, but it can only go to counties with a population of 500,000, meaning only Honolulu would get the money. Another bucket of $4 billion goes to designated programs.
But, with almost every hotel in the state closed, with all restaurants serving just takeout and many other nonessential retail operations ordered shut, there are thousands of Oahu citizens not working — and legislators are worried what they can do as they stare the state’s greatest recession in the face.
“I’m offering my services for whatever they need,” Luke said. “If you want me to answer the phones, I’ll answer phones.”