HONOLULU (CN) – The 30th Hawaii Legislature convened Wednesday with urgent calls by lawmakers to stem the exodus of Native Hawaiians from the islands and to protect the 214,000 of them – nearly half of their population – who live in poverty.
“Many people in Hawaii cannot make it,” lamented state Senate majority leader Kalani English in opening remarks to the packed chamber. “Can we keep up? Statistics tell us the answer is no. At best we are treading water; at worst we are drowning. Our mission is clear: to help people stay home.”
In 2019 alone, 13,000 Native Hawaiians moved to the mainland, where Native Hawaiians outnumber those on the islands.
English vowed “landmark legislation” in the coming session in the form of tax credits, minimum wage increases and money for the creation of early-learning classrooms and affordable housing to combat three ills plaguing Hawaii residents: income inequality, lack of affordable child care, and a shortage of affordable housing.
“By making the earned income tax permanent we will put $75 million into the pockets of working-class families and individuals. But tax relief is not enough,” English said. “The minimum wage must increase from $10 to $13 dollars an hour.”
While both parties agreed recently on the wage increase in principle, they are apart on how much the hike should be.
English also envisions the creation of 17,000 affordable housing units and spending $200 million for family homes along the rail line.
“Business as usual is not working,” said English, throwing down a gauntlet to Republican colleagues.
House minority leader Gene Ward responded by bemoaning the 20,000 Hawaiians waiting for homes promised by the Hawaii Homes Act, which turns 100 this year. He also cited violent crime, vaping, repeat felony offenders and the cost of food as particular problems. To illustrate the latter, he pulled groceries from a sack. “$113 for one bag,” he said.
“Like Bill Clinton said, ‘It’s the economy, stupid,’” Ward continued. “We have to grow the economy, not just cut up the pie.”
Hawaii’s operating budget for fiscal year 2020 is $10.6 billion.
Outside the statehouse in its airy atrium, native and local activists gathered under the banner Hawaii Rising, an annual grassroots rally for “justice for all people and ‘aina” (earth), to sing, chant and educate the public about their various causes.
The Office of Hawaiian Affairs, plaintiff in a lawsuit against the University of Hawaii’s development of Mauna Kea, passed out literature critical of state land management. Green New Deal Hawaii advocated for ecosystems restoration, lauding Governor David Ige’s pledge to make Hawaii energy independent by 2030. Hawaii Center for Food Safety lobbied for new pesticide bills. Decarcerate Hawaii: Pu’uhonua Not Prisons spoke on the epidemic of jailing people in the islands.
As always, however, the day was pervaded by a spirit of aloha. On the lawn and on the hale steps people pounded poi, handed out lau lau on banana tree sheaths, danced and talked. And on a stage under the capitol’s great chimney flue design, kapuna led the crowd in traditional chants, eerily powerful and, again, urgent.