After a three-month, COVID-19-induced suspension of this year’s legislative session, state lawmakers rolled up their sleeves and reconvened Monday hoping to adopt a plan to use federal funds to help Hawaii residents and businesses cope with the pandemic.
Lawmakers are aiming to be done with the work and adjourn in about three weeks.
Top of mind is a plan, devised jointly and released publicly Friday by House and Senate leaders, to infuse about $635 million into the economy for those in need of unemployment benefits ($230 million), rental and housing assistance ($100 million) and small- business grants and training and job programs ($56 million).
The plan also provides $100 million for sanitation supplies and personal protection equipment to essential workers such as child care and senior home care employees, schools and nonprofit agencies that work with populations most vulnerable to the coronavirus. The plan also allows Gov. David Ige’s administration to spend up to $39 million for unanticipated and emergency funding needs.
Details of the plan are expected to be discussed during a joint House-Senate conference committee meeting at 2 p.m. today. Lawmakers are eyeing Senate Bill 126 as the main vehicle for the program.
Ige, during Monday’s Honolulu Star Advertiser Facebook Live COVID-19 Care Conversation, said that yet to be determined is where the state will find the revenue to implement a screening program that centers around those placed under quarantine after testing positive.
“We’re talking about taking maybe some (hotel room tax) funds to be able to support that,” Ige said. Federal CARES Act money must be spent by the end of the year, “and we need to create a sustainable program, a public health program, focused at the airport but really supporting contact tracing and testing and all of those activities that we now know (are) so important for us to maintain and to expand.”
The governor said he also wants lawmakers to pass a bill that would give the Department of Heath the authority to declare a public health emergency.
Also high on the list of priorities is House Bill 285, which requires the state’s four police departments to disclose in annual reports to the Legislature the names of officers who are suspended or charged. Open-government advocates have for years fought for the bill’s passage. The State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers has consistently opposed it, and the bill has failed to muster enough support to make it through to the governor’s desk.
But House Judiciary Chairman Chris Lee (D, Kailua-Lanikai-Waimanalo) said that could change this year with the recent push for police reform triggered by the recent death of George Floyd, who died after being restrained with the knee of a Minneapolis police officer against his neck. All four officers involved were fired and were arrested on criminal charges.
That measure is also being taken up at today’s 2 p.m. conference committee meeting.
In the 25-person Senate, members spent most of its half-hour session Monday bidding a tearful farewell to state Sen. Breene Harimoto (D, Pearl Harbor-Pearl City-Aiea), who died Thursday after a long bout with cancer.
Several senators known for their tough or stoic personalities struggled to maintain their composure as they paid tribute.
Sen. Karl Rhoads (D, Downtown-Nuuanu-Liliha) said he and Harimoto disagreed on practically every issue, including the death with dignity bill that passed several years ago. Harimoto was one of only two senators who voted against the highly emotional bill, which Rhoads, as Judiciary chairman, pushed through.
Rhoads said Harimoto conducted himself gracefully at the Capitol despite recognizing that his days were short. “If I can do it with the dignity that he did, I will be satisfied,” he said, choking back tears.
Sen. Kurt Fevella (R, Ewa Beach-Iroquois Point), who said he was on the Ewa Neighborhood Board and Harimoto on the Board of Education when they first met, credited his fallen colleague for saving the Ewa Beach Neighborhood Library. Fevella recalled it was Harimoto who quietly told him that the library was among the facilities on the budget chopping block.
“Ewa Beach wouldn’t have our library if it wasn’t for Breene,” Fevella said, news that took the then-neighborhood board chairman by surprise since the facility served as both James Campbell High School’s and the growing Ewa Beach community’s library. That warning gave him and the community time to mobilize and rally at the Capitol to keep it alive, he said.
Sen. Gil Riviere (D, Heeia- Laie-Waialua) said all his colleagues would agree that “Breene Harimoto was the nicest guy we’ve ever met — without a doubt, the most honorable, straightforward, reliable guy that we could count on.”
A moment of silence was also held in Harimoto’s honor at the end of Monday’s House session.