The ambitious agenda that state lawmakers originally envisioned for the 2020 session, one aimed at tackling chronic poverty and homelessness, is officially history because of the damage the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic shutdown have caused.
In its place is a rescue plan that’s also aimed at the poor. This time, sadly, they include the newly poor who already have lost their jobs to layoffs and business closures, with more likely to join them as employers struggle to regain a foothold.
Certainly there may be unrelated bills from the old slate that could resurface. House Bill 285, which sought to bring transparency to police disciplinary actions, should be positioned to pass following weeks of global “Black Lives Matter” protests over police use of force and misconduct.
And, of course, there are negotiated public employee raises that will be awkward passing in the midst of all the private-sector economic carnage.
But the primary mission from when the Legislature reconvenes on Monday until July 10 is to spend the roughly $635 million in federal CARES Act aid that lawmakers stored in the state’s “rainy day” fund before recessing in May.
“While it was certainly raining when we were in the last session, it’s going to continue, unfortunately, to be difficult through the end of the year,” said Senate President Ron Kouchi.
The outlines of the plan released on Friday do seem to have the right basic contours, with the largest proposed outlays aimed at helping the unemployed and those needing a boost to get over the rental hurdle each month. There are smaller allotments for other initiatives that are also needed, from the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) against COVID-19 for institutions needing it, to employment retraining programs.
The question the public will want answered: Is enough priority being given to the most desperate needs? That’s a tough question to ask in circumstances that are this dismal and bound to become more dire in the months ahead.
In a blueprint released last week, “CARES Act Spending Priorities for Working Families,” the nonprofit Hawai‘i Working Families Coalition points out just how catastrophic the pandemic has been for Hawaii. This state has a large service- industry workforce supporting the dominant visitor industry that has been essentially immobilized.
Arrayed around it is a retail and restaurant sector that serves the local community but also leans on tourism for essential revenue.
Now that businesses have been slowly reopening, there is some hope that a recovery can slowly take hold. But it may not happen soon enough for many of them that have barely held on during lockdown. More businesses are almost sure to go dark, generating a new wave of unemployment.
The coalition cited the U.S. Census Bureau’s new Household Pulse Survey, which found that 59.2% of adults in Hawaii are “in households where someone had a loss in employment income since March 13,” the largest proportion in any state.
“Here in Hawaii, our working families are struggling with some of the highest rates of unemployment, income loss and housing insecurity in the nation due to the pandemic,” the coalition has concluded. “Regardless of how the funding is distributed … it is crucial that these funds move quickly to those who need it the most.”
Viewed through that lens, there is some logic behind the proposal by House and Senate Democrats. Here are some of its elements:
>> Leadership wants to set aside $230 million to be distributed by the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to replace at least some of the federal $600 “plus-up” in additional weekly unemployment benefits.
That supplement, due to expire July 31, would be replaced from Aug. 1 through December with a $100 weekly boost. It isn’t much, but in the hands of the newly jobless, it will be well spent.
However, the Legislature can’t escape the fact that the DLIR unemployment system is incapable of delivering the funds at a satisfactory pace. And the flood of jobless claims isn’t going to let up anytime soon. Lawmakers must see to it that DLIR accelerates its plan to install technology that actually works well.
>> $100 million in rental assistance will go to a program in the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. that will provide up to $500 monthly through December, targeting some 34,000 renters. This is good, and it should be paired with further relief from evictions. Keeping people housed is critical.
>> $100 million in PPE support would go to child-care centers, nonprofits, elder-care facilities, hospitals and other businesses — also essential to survival.
As much as states yearn for more federal aid, they can’t rely on it materializing anytime soon. So the state leadership plan needs its full public vetting, to ensure every penny is put to its best use. That’s because people here are suffering severe pain right now, and can do nothing but hope that help is right around the corner, soon to emerge from the state Capitol.