2021 State Legislature Was A Budgetary Success
Perhaps the 2021 State Legislature could be summed up as this: “It did no harm.”
Leading into the session, a massive state budget deficit awaited lawmakers who faced the challenge of either raising taxes or making deep cuts to social services. Or possibly both to balance the budget (required by law). All three scenarios could have done tremendous harm to Hawaii residents and businesses already hurting, and in many cases crippled, by the COVID-19 pandemic.
State lawmakers deliver a fair, balanced budget
The good news is lawmakers did their main job this session which was to pass a state budget for the next two fiscal years without doing much harm.
The multiple tax packages introduced at the beginning of session as an emergency backup — if the Biden administration and Congress didn’t deliver on the American Rescue Plan – all failed mostly in House committees. No harm done.
At the same time, the $80 million-some dedicated to social services programs were left untouched. Again, no harm done.
While state lawmakers deserve pats on the back for balancing the state budget ($31.2 billion), the federal government’s allotment of $1.6 billion in COVID-relief was that much needed parachute to soften an otherwise crash landing.
Who deserves credit on the federal side, the Democrats and President Joe Biden. Republicans in both the House and Senate universally (all of them) voted down the American Rescue Plan. It’s not being biased to point this out, just simply stating fact.
Without federal aid, it’s likely any one or all of the three treasury-boosting scenarios listed above would have been a sure thing.
Other smart budgeting measures
State lawmakers also acted responsibly by eliminating vacant positions and merging-restructuring some government offices as cost-savings measures.
Another smart financial decision (and even smarter political one) House and Senate leadership bailed out on a controversial pay raise for themselves, judges, the governor and department heads. Giving themselves a pay raise would have been, no other way to put it, outright awkward in times of austerity, reduced hours for many of Hawaii workers (cut in pay), and high joblessness.
Missed Opportunity on Policing Reform
Where state lawmakers failed is to act on any of the policing reform bills from collecting data on arrests to banning chokeholds. It’s a disappointment especially considering how passionately so many Americans feel about reforms to policing.
The pushback to criticisms of inaction on the multiple proposed bills was state lawmakers say policing is mostly for counties to act on and pursue.
State lawmakers also say that many of the policing reform bills like the one that would allow citizens to record police activities are already established by case law; in other words, some of them are already legal as decided on by courts.
Both arguments – county jurisdiction and already established laws by the courts – have credibility.
But at the same time, being that none of those bills are budget-sensitive, lawmakers should have passed at least some of them even if that meant duplication or overlapping of case law or county law. Why? Action at the state level in policing reform sends a strong message that as a community (at all levels of local government), we demand safe and fair policing.
Frankly, it’s hard to believe political pressure (or the fear of appearing to be against the police union or police officers) did not play a role in this very clear decision by House and Senate leadership to avoid completely all policing reform bills.
The attitude of “leaving it for the counties and courts” to act is too safe a move, and to be so consistent to sit on their hands on all these bills leaves people wondering, why.
Other noteworthy measures
Besides balancing the budget and making cuts, there were other notable work done this session. The payday lending bill passed is one. It will help many struggling individuals and families, particularly during this pandemic. The bill helps to prevent high-interest fees and high annual percentage rates that unscrupulous lenders charge. It will prevent them from taking advantage of Hawaii residents on the margin who cannot get loans from traditional lending institutions. It saves the marginalized from falling further into debt.
In the area of education, Gov. David Ige already signed into law a bill to develop and implement a statewide computer science curricula plan and ensure each public high school offers at least one computer science course each school year.
Overall, the 2021 session was as expected. No earth-to-heaven legislation had been pushed through besides the budget. But given the state of the economy, this was enough. Lawmakers acted with heart in some areas, and made practical decision-making in other areas. Their work this session matched the basic necessities of what this specific period in time require.