What Will Be The Defining Issue Of The 2020 Legislature?

Jan 14, 2020

Problems abound but no single issue appears to have yet united Hawaii lawmakers as the opening of the 2020 legislative session approaches on Wednesday.

Although Hawaii’s Legislature is dominated by a single political party, there are still competing priorities and differences of opinion amongst the 76 lawmakers.

HPR asked the majority leaders of the state Senate and House of Representatives what single issue they think needs to be solved this year. Maui Sen. J. Kalani English is thinking about how to better address concerns of the Native Hawaiian community.

“I really feel that we have to address the Hawaiian issue straight on. We cannot walk around it anymore. And I think that it's a matter of redress, it's a matter of reconciliation and it's just a matter of dignity,” the senator from Hana said.

For House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti, this session is all about lowering the state's high cost of living. She’s looking at issues like building more affordable housing, reducing the cost of early childhood education, and lowering the tax burden on working families.

One issue both Belatti and English cited is how to pay for the additional spending requested by Gov. David Ige, particularly pay raises for teachers in hard-to-staff locations and specialties.

“They didn't ask us,” English said. “I think most legislators thought, ‘They’ve got the money. They found how to do this.’ But what programs are you suggesting we cut to come up with that money?”

Belatti says her colleagues in the House had a similar reaction.

“With the expectation that the Legislature would just come in and fund, there's a lot of questions. A lot of members have lots of questions,” the Honolulu representative said.

The Ige administration plans to spend an additional $490 million on government operations funds over the next two years. Around $45 million of that would go toward K-12 education.

Although skepticism of the governor's proposal appears widespread among lawmakers, there are sharp disagreements between the two chambers on other issues. One striking example is how, if at all, to address the trend of population decline in Hawaii, now in its third year.

Rep. Belatti says she is absolutely concerned by the situation.

“I've had a conversation with my daughter, who's a freshman at Roosevelt High School. When she told me ‘Mom, you think my friends and I are going to be coming back after college?’ I was stunned. If population continues to decline because people are exiting, where are the workers of the future going to be? We need to figure out how to attract a range of people to stay here,” said Belatti, a lawyer by trade.

Sen. English, who by contrast comes from one of the state’s most isolated communities, has a very different take on the matter.

“For most old-timers, when they hear there is a population decline, they smile. I think slight population decline may be OK. We don't have the capabilities to handle drinking water, waste water treatment, food supply, transportation. So if our population goes down, those pressures ease,” he said.

Both lawmakers cautioned that although bitter disagreements may seem common at the state Capitol, those outward appearances often do not reflect the full picture.

“We'll have a sharp debate and later we'll go to the other person and say, ‘I didn't quite consider that. You made a good point,’” English said.

Belatti also acknowledged the sometimes rancorous debate, but said it’s all well-intended.

“Legislating can be a contact sport, but I think at the end of the day we are all professionals here and we all are here because we want to work for our communities, to make this a better place, because we all care about our community.”

As many as 3,000 state laws could be proposed this session. Usually, fewer than 300 are passed and signed by the governor.