COVID-19 Budget Moves Out For Passage, But Not Without Controversy

Hawaii lawmakers have agreed to a plan to set aside millions in CARES Act funds to cover some of the benefits that unemployed workers will lose at the end of July. It’s just one item in a budget proposal to use $635 million in federal assistance to address a range of coronavirus-related issues, and jump start the economy.

The state Legislature reconvened Monday under locked down conditions that prevents the public from attending the sessions in person because of COVID-19.

The main order of business: appropriate the over half a billion dollars that have flowed from Washington, D.C., to help the state deal with the ongoing pandemic.

A House and Senate conference committee agreed yesterday to advance the spending plan, with minimum discussion, to the floors of both chambers where votes are expected on Friday.

Among the major proposals is a $230 million allocation to help out-of-work employees. Many have been getting $600 weekly in extra unemployment insurance payments, known as $600 Plus-Up, but the additional amount is ending on July 31.

The conference committee agreed to provide $100 a week to cover some of what will be lost.

“We anticipate this affecting 117,000 recipients. So when the $600 Plus-Up ends, they’ll at least get $100 per week, in addition to their UI benefit,” said Donovan Dela Cruz, chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Other items in the proposed amended state budget include $90 million for thermal screening and facial recognition cameras at the airport and $100 million to subsidize the rents of eligible households hit hard by the pandemic.

Other appropriations would provide $100 million to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency for sanitation and personal protective equipment for essential employees, including those that work at child care centers, elderly care homes, small businesses and schools and nonprofits that work with vulnerable populations.

Other expenditures aim to help rebuild the economy: $30 million for workforce training and job placement; $15 million to help local manufacturers produce hand sanitizers, PPE and other products needed to deal with the pandemic; and $15 million for child care facilities to help with PPE and social distancing measures.

Certain businesses will also receive allocations, including $3 million for the fishing industry and $19 million for the Maui Health System that runs Maui Memorial Medical Center, location of a major outbreak of the coronavirus earlier in the year.

The allocations of the federal aid money drew criticism from social service agencies while the process of adopting the budget measure, using a method called gut-and-replace, riled others.

“Families could’ve used more help with food and many have lost their health insurance — the current bill doesn’t address these needs,” said Deborah Zysman, executive director of Hawaiʻi Children’s Action Network in a statement. “Our kūpuna remain vulnerable, and many immigrants still havenʻt received any government support.”

The lawmakers took a bill that had already gone through the public hearing process, Senate Bill 126, then replaced the text with the CARES Act expenditures, critics said. By doing this, the bill did not get the usual public hearing review.

“If we are going to successfully face Hawaiʻi’s complex challenges, we need all of Hawaiʻi’s people contributing to the solutions,” said Gavin Thornton, executive director of the Hawaiʻi Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice. “Our strength is our people. A process like this, which excludes our people, is a recipe for failure.”