Hawaii lawmakers return with vows to help working families

Jan 18, 2023, 4:38 AM | Updated: 7:20 pm

House Speaker Scott Saiki speaks to reporters on the opening day of the Hawaii State Legislature's ...

House Speaker Scott Saiki speaks to reporters on the opening day of the Hawaii State Legislature's new session in Honolulu on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2023. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)

(AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)

HONOLULU (AP) — Lawmakers opened a new session of the Hawaii State Legislature on Wednesday with proposals to provide more tax relief to working families and impose fees on travelers using popular state parks and trails.

Lawmakers also vowed to hold hearings on ethics reform bills after two former lawmakers last year pleaded guilty to accepting bribes in office in exchange for influencing legislation.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said he favored expanding the earned income tax credit, which he estimated would help about 100,000 working households.

He said there have been some proposals to offer food or rental tax credits, but he believes enlarging the earned income tax credit would provide relief at “one entry point.” He didn’t offer a specific dollar amount, saying “we’ll see what happens” during the session.

Gov. Josh Green told reporters after the House and Senate opening ceremonies that he supported Saiki a “thousand percent” on the tax credit. He said he would propose $306 million in tax relief for working families during his State of the State speech next Monday.

Green, who is just one month into his first term as governor, said he didn’t expect much conflict with the House and Senate, though they may have some different opinions.

“We all want the same thing, which is to make Hawaii affordable, to have a good housing inventory and probably keep our climate intact,” Green said. “There’s not much else right now that’s on people’s minds.”

Green is a Democrat and Democrats hold overwhelming majorities in both the House and Senate.

Senate President Ron Kouchi said he believes the state could raise $20 million to $40 million a year in fees from tourists visiting state parks. He reiterated that he preferred this approach to Green’s proposal to charge a fee to travelers arriving at the airport.

“I’m committed to work with him to get the resources we need from the people we agree should be paying to take care of our natural resources,” Kouchi said in remarks on the Senate floor.

On housing, House Majority Leader Rep. Nadine Nakamura said her caucus aims to provide $300 million to promote the construction of affordable housing.

Lawmakers also vowed to follow through to ensure the Department of Hawaiian Homelands effectively uses $600 million appropriated last year to provide housing to Native Hawaiians.

On ethics reform, the House and Senate say they will evaluate legislation and rule changes recommended by the House Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct. The House created the panel last year after the bribery charges came to light.

Former Sen. Kalani English, who admitted accepting $18,000 cash and Las Vegas hotel rooms from a Honolulu businessman, was sentenced to three years and four months in prison. Former Rep. Ty Cullen is due to be sentenced in April. He admitted accepting $23,000 in cash and New Orleans casino chips from the same businessman.

House Judiciary Chairperson David Tarnas said he aimed to hold a hearing for every bill resulting from the commission’s recommendations.

Tarnas said he asked each House member to read the panel’s report carefully, examine the recommendations and study the commission’s hearings.

“The whole point here is to try to improve transparency in our operations here so we can improve people’s trust in us,” Tarnas told reporters.

One commission recommendation was to require lawmakers to disclose certain relationships with lobbyists. The panel also suggested requiring committee chairpersons to say why they are deferring a measure or not scheduling a bill for public hearing.

House Rep. Nadine Nakamura, the chairperson for the House rules committee, said she would look at the commission’s ideas for changing rules and consider what reforms could be adopted now and what could wait until later. She said her committee is considering holding public hearings to get the public’s input on the rule-change proposals.

Kouchi told reporters the Senate would consider the ethics reform legislation. Potential rule changes would be brought to the caucus, “and we’ll see what happens,” he said.

He said the Senate hopes to quickly meet one of the commission’s recommendations, which is to post online reports on the spending of individual legislator allowances.

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Hawaii lawmakers return with vows to help working families