State lawmakers and administration are assembling some of the bricks needed for Hawaii’s longer-term coronavirus survival response, but there are still many questions to answer before construction can start in earnest.
Not the least of them is: Will enough be done for local businesses and nonprofits in the short term?
Both of those elements of the private sector will be crucial in the recovery of the state from the economic wreckage of the COVID-19 pandemic: The businesses employ the workforce and the social-service safety net tends to the needs of many who suddenly find themselves unable to keep head above water.
Gov. David Ige on Monday laid out a strategy to “reopen and reshape” Hawaii’s economy, laboriously outlining the principles behind lifting restrictions on social and commercial activities. Ige described the current stage as “Act With Care,” encompassing the reopening of moderate-risk activities through June.
But it leaves uncertain when the tourism quarantine would be lifted, and that uncertainty is going to be unnerving for many businesses.
On the legislative front, there is money from the federal government set aside for direct assistance. Some shops on Friday did begin the long process of rebooting, but there are many already deciding they can’t hang on in the interim.
The state House of Representatives on Monday passed its version of Senate Bill 75, the measure serving as the vehicle for the Legislature’s budgetary fix, and sent it to the Senate. Ultimately it will tap about $862 million from the federal CARES Act, meant primarily to address costs caused directly by the pandemic.
The House proposes to deposit about three-fourths of that temporarily in the rainy day fund before both chambers can settle on the final disposition of the money. That would happen after the Legislature gavels out for another recess and returns in June, in anticipation of revised state revenue projections.
Further federal aid may bring hope to that bleak landscape: Hawaii’s congressional delegation needs to make sure such programs deliver as soon as possible.
U.S. Rep. Ed Case said about $1 billion in Hawaii-bound federal funds remain in the pipeline, including untapped Paycheck Protection Program funds for small businesses as well as outstanding pandemic aid to individuals.
The U.S House has passed $3 trillion in further aid, largely to offset revenue losses for state and local governments, but the U.S. Senate already has signaled that a grueling political battle lies ahead over the issue. So Hawaii lawmakers can’t count on that to help close budgetary holes immediately.
Here are two decision points from the state budget talks:
>> Finance chiefs remain unconvinced by the request to fund a new recovery “navigator” initiative, fronted by Alan Oshima. The $10 million bid appears largely to hire an outside consultant for the economic reboot, plus nearly $1 million for a new five-person agency. Ige seems determined to find funds to carry this out, regardless, judging by his remarks during Monday’s strategy unveiling.
But lawmakers are correct that this work falls squarely within the bailiwick of the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism. That state agency should be providing the leadership on this front.
>> The budget will include $36 million for thermal screening of inbound passengers at the airport. This seems likely to be a key long-term element in reducing the risk from travelers, once tourism resumes in earnest.
Ige acknowledged, rightly that it’s only one safeguard and that, as testing platforms continue to evolve, that can be adapted to lower the risk to public health.
How exactly will that play out, and how soon? Add those to the many questions hovering over a worried public, demanding answers.