Appleseed announces 2019 policy agenda

Each legislative session, Hawaiʻi Appleseed creates a policy agenda of actionable solutions to some of our state’s most prevalent and entrenched social and economic problems. Based on the months of research we spend each year examining these critical issues, this agenda prioritizes efforts for maximum benefit to the community at-large. Our staff will be working with lawmakers and stakeholders to advance the following solutions through the legislative process:

Raise the minimum wage to $17 per hour

One job should be enough. But in Hawai‘i, two jobs often don’t provide enough to basic living costs. At Hawai‘i’s current minimum wage of $10.10 per hour, a person would need to work 109 hours a week to afford rent for a modest one-bedroom unit. Contrary to the stereotype of teenagers earning extra cash at after-school jobs, minimum wage earners in Hawai‘i are overwhelmingly adult workers, many of whom work full-time and support families of their own. Hawai‘i Appleseed is helping to lead a coalition of organizations as part of the Raise Up Hawaii campaign for a $17 minimum wage.

Double the value of SNAP (food stamp) benefits when used to purchase Hawaiʻi-grown fresh produce

Every community should have adequate access to fresh and healthy food. However, due to lack of purchasing power, many low-income communities don’t have this luxury.

To increase access to fresh fruits and vegetables for beneficiaries of the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps), some states have created SNAP incentive programs. One popular model, widely known as “Double Up Food Bucks,” offers an additional dollar for every dollar of SNAP benefit spent on local produce, effectively doubling the purchasing power of families with low incomes.

These SNAP incentive programs have not only increased access to healthy food for participants, they also channel federal funds into local agriculture, invigorate local economies, and alleviate food insecurity.

Hawai‘i Appleseed currently coordinates a “SNAP Hui” that is seeking $1 million in funding from the legislature to ensure communities across the islands can benefit from Double Up. The program has the potential of doubling SNAP usage at farmer’s markets and other retailers of local produce, laying the foundation for further expansion in future years to increase access to healthy food.

To fulfill this goal, Appleseed is working with another coalition of stakeholders on the Double Up Hawaiʻi campaign.

Eliminate state income tax on those living in poverty

Our state’s budget and tax system should be designed to help all of Hawai‘i’s residents to thrive. Yet, in Hawai‘i, residents who can least afford it pay the highest share of their income toward state and local taxes. Already faced with some of the highest housing costs in the nation, and the lowest wages after accounting for cost of living, families living in poverty in Hawai‘i pay the nation’s second highest state and local tax rate.

While with one hand we are lifting up people in poverty with government programs and services, with the other hand we pushing them down and pulling money out of their pockets through an income tax the kicks in for families still below the poverty line. It’s inefficient and prevents struggling families from progressing and thriving. Hawai‘i Appleseed is spearheading an effort to eliminate the state income tax on households living in poverty.

The Hawaiʻi Tax Fairness Coalition will be our vehicle for pushing tax reform at the legislature.

Eliminate the corporate tax exemption for Real Estate Investment Trusts

Hawai‘i is missing out on roughly $50 million in income tax revenue from Real Estate Investment Trust (REIT) property. Income that is generated on Hawai‘i real estate is escaping taxation here.

A Real Estate Investment Trust or “REIT,” is a corporation that owns income-producing real estate, like hotels and shopping malls. Like a mutual fund for real estate, people can purchase shares in a REIT to get a portion of the income it generates.

REIT’s have been granted a special tax status that exempts them from paying corporate income tax on the dividends paid to its shareholders. Over 30 REITs operate in Hawai‘i, which collectively own $13 billion worth of real estate. In 2014, Hawai‘i REITs produced $721 million in dividend income that was exempt from corporate income tax. Without the dividends exemptions for REITs, Hawai‘i would have collected an additional $35 million in revenue that year. The amount of Hawai‘i property that is invested in REITs has been rapidly increasing, and the amount of revenue lost to the REIT dividend exemption is estimated to exceed $50 million.

REIT’s argue that subjecting them to corporate income tax would effectively be a double-tax, since REIT shareholders pay income tax on the dividend income they receive. However, a corporate income tax exemption is the exception not the rule. Also, the problem for Hawai‘i is that most shareholders of Hawai‘i REITs don’t live in Hawai‘i, so when they ultimately pay income taxes on the dividends they receive, they are often paying their income taxes somewhere other than Hawai‘i. Income generated by Hawai‘i property is getting taxed elsewhere. Instead of Hawai‘i REIT tax dollars going to pay for Hawai‘i roads and schools, tax dollars generated by Hawai‘i REITs are paying for roads and schools in New York, or wherever else the shareholders might live. By eliminating the REIT income tax exemption, Hawai‘i can close the tax loophole on REITs and ensure that income generated by Hawai‘i property is taxed in Hawai‘i.

Adopt a Comprehensive Plan to Address Hawai‘i’s Housing and Homelessness Crisis

A home provides the foundation for a stable successful life, a foundation that doesn’t exist for many families in Hawai‘i. Nearly 50 years ago, in 1970, the State of Hawai‘i issued a report stating that Hawai‘i had been experiencing a “serious housing problem for many years” which had by then “become a crisis.” In the decades since, the problem has doubled in severity. Hawai‘i is now tied for the highest homelessness rate in the nation. Last year, the Hawai‘i State Legislature took an important step toward addressing Hawai‘i’s housing and homelessness crisis by increasing appropriations for low-income housing development from $25 million to $200 million, and make making unprecedented investments in homelessness programs. To turn the tide a problem that’s been growing for the last 50 years, we need to continue making these investments, targeting them toward the most efficient and effective measures.

Hawai‘i Appleseed is helping to lead the efforts of Partners In Care—a 50+ member coalition of homelessness service providers and stakeholders—in formulating and pursuing a comprehensive plan to end Hawai‘i’s housing and homelessness crisis. The plan includes four primary components:

1) Make last year’s $200 million investment in low-income housing the new baseline, with a $125 million appropriation to the Rental Housing Revolving Fund for low-income housing development and a $75 million appropriation to build Permanent Supportive Housing units to address chronic homelessness—part of a 10-year plan of investing $750 million to house all of Hawai‘i’s residents experiencing chronic homelessness, which is projected to generate a net cost-savings of over $2 billion, primarily by bringing people off the streets and out of the expensive emergency medical care system.

2) Put $16.5 million into the base budget to ensure sufficient funding and stability for core programs that have proven effective to end homelessness, including Outreach, Rapid Rehousing, Housing First, Family Assessment Centers, the Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (“LEAD”) program, and the Coordinated Statewide Homelessness Initiative (“CSHI”);

3) Appropriate $2.3 million to test programs that will fill gaps in existing homelessness services, including: (1) a pilot program to provide shallow, short-term rent subsidies to families with income, but not in sufficient amounts to pay the rent; and (2) a pilot program to provide shallow, long-term rent subsidies to kupuna on fixed incomes who face the threat of homelessness due to rapidly rising rents; and

4) Make improvements to the 2013 Assisted Community Treatment Act (ACT) to better assist people experiencing psychosis who are posing a threat to their own health.