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Editorial: Public needs swift help from states

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What can be seen of the murky future is fairly bleak. Among the dreary fiscal projections: Congress is unlikely to be racing toward a firm agreement on emergency relief funds for taxpayers reeling from the coronavirus-driven recession. Those especially hurting are workers who are out of a job now, through no fault of their own.

And the jobless rate is only going to go up further, especially with the stunning count of 207 COVID-19 infection cases reported Monday. Counties have curtailed activities — such as shutdowns of bars and, on Oahu and Kauai, a ban on gatherings of more than 10 people, including at city parks and beaches. Further, the state could be on the brink of another shutdown, wreaking havoc on already suffering businesses.

Amid the recent spike in disease spread, Gov. David Ige somehow saw good reason on Thursday to veto the $230 million in supplemental unemployment funding from federal dollars allocated to the state. And this was announced without there being a clear plan, or even a set of alternative targets, for this spending.

The money would have funded $100 weekly “plus-up” additions to unemployment benefits for thousands of Hawaii residents thrown out of work, temporarily or permanently. It had been part of a relief package allotted in July by the state Legislature, anticipating the expiration of the $600 weekly federal plus-up allotments, which did in fact dry up at month’s end.

Congress is still debating how to deliver the next set of federal pandemic aid, Ige said, so he’s willing to wait and see what it devises.

While some of the Legislature’s earmarks could stand some revision — Ige vetoed eight budgetary line-items in Hawaii’s relief package funded by the federal CARES Act — the basis for holding off on the $100 weekly boost was weak and has grown weaker.

Specifically, Ige said Hawaii’s plus-up funding could be reinstated if Congress recesses at the end of this week without settling the unemployment deal. However, numerous political observers now predict that the tug-of-war could extend well into August.

How many weeks is the governor willing to make struggling households wait until they get more than the maximum $648 the state provides? It would have been far better to proceed with some measure of added support now.

Going forward, Ige should do his utmost to get this modest level of relief to the jobless promptly, rather than playing wait-and-see with Congress.

Hawaii’s workforce suffered a disproportionately harder blow from the pandemic, given its reliance on the tourism industry, still in lockdown. And if the virus isn’t brought under better control, the chances of restarting the tourism economic engine on Sept. 1, as scheduled, may dim.

Via other line-item vetoes, Ige will reduce funds for airport screening and security measures; for the housing and rental assistance program; for personal protective equipment (PPE) for hospitals, child-care facilities, elderly care facilities, businesses, nonprofits and schools; funds for workforce retraining programs; for creating a local supply chain for cleaning supplies and PPE; for a public-private partnership to help public-school seniors affected by school closures; and cash deposited to the general fund.

These cuts have been made in consultation with agencies, and lawmakers don’t plan to override these vetoes. Instead they have pledged to work with the governor on right-sizing aid programs and in redirecting federal dollars where they’d be most effective. Another concern, of course, is ensuring money is spent by the deadline, at year’s end.

These discussions must be above board, with funds disbursed efficiently to people most at-risk and struggling. The public deserves assurance that the money allotted is put to maximum use. Hawaii needs every last dime.

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