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COVID funds, Young Brothers bailout up for debate on Oahu

Lawmakers review final bills before adjourning July 10

GIL KEITH-AGARAN – “Finishing up budgeting”

Funding to help out renters, small businesses and a major shipping company crucial to the Neighbor Islands will be some of the issues lawmakers plan to hash out over the final stretch of this year’s legislative session.

The state Legislature reconvened Monday and will take on emergency measures, priority bills and last-minute budgeting before wrapping up a session that was interrupted by the pandemic in March.

“The main thing that we’re trying to do is finish up the budgeting, now that there’s a little bit more clarity on what Congress plans to do, and the clarity was really that they’re not going to do anything within our timetable,” said Central Maui Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran, vice chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, the money committee in the Senate.

With the clock ticking on the federal CARES Act funding that Hawaii must spend by the end of the year, Keith-Agaran said the goal is to put that money toward existing programs to provide relief for residents and businesses.

On Friday, the Legislature announced plans to use $635 million in CARES funding for unemployment benefits, rental assistance, job training and protective equipment.

J. KALANI ENGLISH – Preparing for “rough road ahead”

The plan is to set aside $230 million to create a new state unemployment insurance weekly benefit to replace the $600 federal benefit that runs out July 31. Starting Aug. 1, about 117,000 people will receive the state’s enhanced weekly unemployment benefit of $100.

Another $100 million will go toward rental and housing assistance subsidies for more than 34,000 households. Those who qualify will receive a $500 monthly subsidy or 50 percent of rent, whichever is lesser, for up to five months from Aug. 1 to Dec. 31. Keith-Agaran said the goal is to get the funding to landlords to ensure it will go directly toward rent.

Another $56 million will go toward small businesses for training and to encourage them to hire unemployed people, as well as to provide manufacturing grants to produce cleaning supplies and protective equipment.

Lawmakers also want to put aside $100 million for distribution of supplies to essential workers beyond the health care community, including child and elderly care facilities.

Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English, who represents East Maui, Molokai and Lanai, said that with the state having to borrow from the federal government after unemployment funds ran out earlier this month, bank deferments for mortgages set to end and the $600 unemployment bonus going away, “we’re trying to prepare state government and everyone else for the rough road ahead, what’s coming in the last quarter of this year.”

Justin Woodson

“Right now, we’ve been very fortunate to have the federal monies that came in, the state emergency monies, all of this stuff has helped us weather the storm quite well,” he said. “But we don’t have an income base right now, and we don’t have what generated the most amount of tax revenue for us, which is tourism.”

English said that some of the things lawmakers are looking to fund include Maui Memorial Medical Center, “because that’s critical infrastructure for us on Maui.” The hospital could get a $19 million subsidy, which in the past has come from the state’s general funds. But, if it qualifies for CARES money, English said “that’s probably the best place” for it to come from.

One of the other funding issues that lawmakers will debate is how best to bail out Young Brothers. The shipping company has struggled during the pandemic and has asked for $25 million in CARES funding.

“Young Brothers is the lifeline for those of us that live on the Neighbor Islands, especially Molokai and Lanai, so if we decide to provide some kind of subsidy to Young Brothers, it has to be in a way that has conditions that make sure they continue to provide services to the Neighbor Islands,” Keith-Agaran said.

For example, lawmakers could include the condition that some funding go toward “less than container load” operations, which the shipper has slated to end. Many small businesses and farmers can’t fill a full container with their products and depend on that service.

Lawmakers also could ensure that there are adequate trips on a regular schedule to service these small businesses and farmers. Young Brothers has reduced interisland port calls since the onset of the pandemic.

“If we give them $25 million now and then they come at the end of the year and say, ‘Well, we’re closing,’ we just delayed the inevitable,” English said. “So we have to find, what’s the structural change and what’s the corporate change that makes it work better. . . . It’s less about Young Brothers, and it’s more about ensuring service to Molokai and Lanai.”

House Bill 2475 regarding Young Brothers is up for a public hearing at 1:40 p.m. Wednesday. 

Meanwhile, CARES funding is also set to go to schools for sanitation and putting new procedures into place as the school year begins, said Central Maui Rep. Justin Woodson, who chairs the House Lower and Higher Education Committee.

Woodson said that the state Department of Education appears to be looking at a “mixed-delivery system” for the school year, which would combine in-person and distance learning for students if families are not yet comfortable putting their kids back in school.

COVID-19 has not only impacted the traditional classroom but also some bills related to education, including one that calls for the creation of a system over a 10-year period that would offer free or reduced-cost universal access to early learning or day care. Because of the pandemic, lawmakers may have to push the plan to 12 years. Woodson said he believed the bill had “a good chance of survival” before the session adjourns July 10. 

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.

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