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David Shapiro: Legislature used COVID aid to help well-off stay that way

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The disconnect is striking between the Legislature’s chest- thumping over its accomplishments during its 2021 session and public frustration over misplaced priorities.

It’s because lawmakers too often give priority service to a constituency of special interests that fuel their elections, rather than the actual constituency of voters.

Legislators cast themselves as heroes for balancing the state budget after going into session facing a COVID- inspired $1.4 billion deficit, but it wasn’t too heavy a lift after the latest federal pandemic relief dropped $1.6 billion into state coffers.

Despite being made whole by the feds, legislators greedily pilfered the counties’ share of the hotel room tax, raised taxes on tourists as the visitor industry struggles to recover and slashed University of Hawaii funding at a time higher education is key to the state’s hopes of fostering a better-paying knowledge economy.

Hawaii has been among the slowest states to reopen public schools to in-person instruction despite having one of the lowest COVID rates, in part because of resistance from the politically influential teachers union.

How did legislators respond? They used nearly $30 million of federal relief funds intended to help students recover from lost schooling to pay $2,200 bonuses to all 13,500 public school teachers — the only state workers given such munificence despite relatively little front-line pandemic exposure.

Another $110 million went to install air conditioning in schools, a long-standing gripe of teachers that had little to do with the pandemic.

As teachers dominated the conversation with whining about their bosses, pay and working conditions, needs of left-behind students were secondary.

Legislators used the pandemic to skirt major action on priorities such as raising the minimum wage, diversifying Hawaii’s economy and aggressively addressing climate change, homelessness and affordable housing, but found time to give rich landholders virtual monopolies on long-term leases of choice state lands.

Over broad opposition, lawmakers enabled the Department of Land and Natural Resources to extend existing 65-year state leases by 40 years for current lessees without giving others a chance to compete for use of the public lands.

Jonathan Osorio, dean of the UH School of Hawaiian Knowledge, called it “an extension of an economic status quo that is at the root of Hawaii’s economic inequalities.”

After refusing to join most other states in exempting the multitudes of COVID unemployed from income taxes on their unemployment pay, legislators gave businesses an unprecedented $700 million break on unemployment taxes by using half of Hawaii’s federal pandemic aid to spare them from replenishing the state’s unemployment trust fund.

State Rep. Roy Takumi was rejected on a compromise to cut the business tax break to $500 million and use the rest to give tax relief to the unemployed.

“The Legislature in its wisdom decided to give 100% relief to the business community and zero relief to the jobless,” Takumi said. “That’s a moral decision, not a financial decision.”

As could be said of so much of what the Legislature did in 2021.

Reach David Shapiro at

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