A cautious legislature, locked in the capitol, played it safe

Pleas from progressive Democrats and labor unions to raise the state minimum wage, waive state income taxes on unemployment benefits and shift more of the state tax burden to Hawaii’s wealthiest residents were all unsuccessful. Most of those proposals died in the House.

“I would say we’re kind of treading water,” Gavin Thornton, of the Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, said. “There’s definitely good stuff that happened. The best is that we’re not drowning.”

Thornton credited lawmakers with passing a measure to end the payday loans by 2022 and creating a fund to give state grants to nonprofit affordable housing developers. He also cited a measure to bring various stakeholders together to find a way to prevent mass evictions once a moratorium ends in June.

It also was critical, Thornton said, that lawmakers used federal relief funds to save many social services programs including the sexual abuse treatment center and HIV programs.

Lawmakers did tinker with tax policy but chose to pursue the low-risk strategy of slapping new or increased taxes on Hawaii’s tourists, who obviously won’t be voting in Hawaii elections.

And while there was much discussion of ways to reshape the swollen tourism industry to make it more palatable to Hawaii residents, lawmakers were obviously more focused on helping the industry to reopen and rebound from the damage done by the pandemic.

“We are not on a better path now and we are not on a path to greater health either,” Thornton said. “I think we recognized this would be a tough and dangerous situation for Hawaii. But a lot of people hoped it would be the catalyst for significant changes to address long term problems facing Hawaii’s people. I really don’t feel like we saw anything coming out of this session that would help us gain ground there.”

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