Wednesday’s opening of the new legislative session will be like no other — with the state Capitol ringed with security because of potential threats of violence, indefinitely off-limits to the public due to COVID-19 and the ongoing challenge of trying to plot the state’s economic future with few details to reply upon, an issue that’s expected to dominate hearings over the next few months.
The typical pomp and circumstance will not be seen Wednesday, such as attendance by friends and family, entertainment, food and even speeches by key majority and minority leaders.
House Speaker Scott Saiki plans no remarks Wednesday morning if he is reelected by his Democratic colleagues to lead the House.
Instead, Saiki expects only a pro forma adherence to state constitutional requirements that mandate that the legislative session begin at 10 a.m. with a roll call and swearing in by state Supreme Court Justice Mark Recktenwald.
The representative of House District 1 — Rep. Mark Nakashima (D, Kukuihaele-Laupahoehoe-North Hilo) — is scheduled to gavel in the official start of the session at 10 a.m. If reelected as House speaker, Saiki would then take over the proceedings.
But he plans no speech.
“If reelected,” Saiki said, “I’ll reschedule a speech for a day when it’s appropriate, given the safety threats to the (state) Capitol.”
Given peaceful demonstrations over the past few days, Senate President Ron Kouchi expects no violence Wednesday, which coincides with unprecedented security around the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., for the inauguration of incoming President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris — a ceremony that already is surrounded by 25,000 National Guard soldiers, including 200 from Hawaii.
“I remain firm in my belief that we in Hawaii have found a way to express our differences, but in a way that is respectful,” Kouchi said.
Still, given additional variables including COVID- 19 and an uncertain economic picture, Kouchi said the state Capitol will be the site of “an opening day that none of us have ever experienced.”
Even before concerns grew about violence across every state’s capital following the Jan. 6 assault and temporary takeover in Washington, D.C., Hawaii legislators already were planning to restrict access to the state Capitol because of the ongoing spread of COVID-19 — while beefing up technology to allow hearings to be held over public-access television and the internet while still allowing the public to provide testimony in real time.
Then the assault in Washington, D.C., led to the state Capitol being barricaded and staffed with armed security.
Security concerns extend throughout the entire Capitol complex.
State employees have been told in an email from Andrew Garrett, deputy director of the state Department of Human Resources, to expect the main Beretania Street entrance to the State Office Tower — Leiopapa a Kamehameha — to be locked Wednesday “out of an abundance of caution,” Garrett wrote.
“For employees who must physically report to work that day, we are asking supervisors to come down to the lobby area,” Garrett wrote. “Please remind your employees to show their state ID badge to the security guard as they enter the building.
”We’d also like to ask you to reschedule any in-person meetings with outside visitors or deliveries to the building on Wednesday to later in the week,” Garrett wrote. “We will be placing signage on the Beretania Street entrance notifying the public that the building will be closed on Wednesday and that entry will be permitted by appointment only. … If your employees typically get dropped off or picked up between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m., please ask them to make such arrangements at another site.”
Kouchi, the Senate president, said that “anybody within the Capitol district would be prudent to take safety precautions. … We’re continuing to prepare for a worst-case scenario while we hope for a best-case scenario.”
Assuming the state Capitol remains peaceful Wednesday, lawmakers are still faced with trying to budget for state services with no clear understanding of Hawaii’s still-shifting economic picture.
The economy is showing signs of improvement that have outperformed early dour forecasts. But key West Coast tourism markets — especially California — remain in trouble. And an expected — and welcome — financial stimulus from the Biden administration cannot be guaranteed.
“We learned over the past six months not to make assumptions about federal assistance,” Saiki said. “Even with the CARES Act, the rules kept changing constantly. We’ll be waiting for federal action. Until then we will not assume there will be assistance.”
“Even if we do get help from the Biden administration and the new (Democratic) majority in the Senate,” Kouchi said that “the long-term prospect is for six years of economic recovery.”
During weeks of legislative hearings leading up to Wednesday’s official start of the new session, lawmakers have repeatedly expressed hope that the current economic crisis will result in a different look for state government that could include a slimmer workforce, telecommuting and a more streamlined approach.
“My feeling is that if we are not able to reform government during a pandemic, then we will never reform government,” Saiki said. “This is an opportunity for us to make some changes that will make government more effective for the people.”