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Lawmakers hope funds will aid in recovery

They also express concerns about reopening travel Aug. 1

A legislative session that was interrupted by the pandemic in March and pieced back together over two emergency sessions came to an end on Friday, with lawmakers hoping the financial aid will help hurting residents get back on their feet.

“I think we’re well aware that the pandemic has probably driven more people to the edge of being part of our ALICE (asset limited, income constrained, employed),” Central Maui Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran said during a news conference Friday.

Both House and Senate leadership pointed to the federal relief funds that lawmakers doled out to unemployment, rental assistance and other social services.

With the federal benefit of $600 a week for unemployment set to end this month, lawmakers approved a $100 weekly benefit that House Speaker Scott Saiki estimated will benefit about 200,000 unemployed residents. The Legislature also put together a $100 million package to provide up to $500 in monthly rental aid to more than 24,000 households in Hawaii. The CARES Act-funded benefits will run through the end of the year.

“The people that cannot pay their rent, it also has a trickle effect where the landlords are having problems,” Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English, who represents East Maui, Molokai, Lanai and Kahoolawe, said during the news conference. “They need to pay the mortgages. . . . How do we help them? So I think we’re working that stuff out.”

English added that if there is a second round of funding from the federal government, “which we’re hearing about now, we may have to deal with that in the near future too.”

Upcountry Rep. Kyle Yamashita, who sits on the House Finance Committee and oversees capital improvement projects in the House, added that lawmakers will be watching Congress, which is under pressure now that cases of COVID-19 are spiking nationwide.

“I think although a lot of the programs will end at the end of July, I think there will be pressure to continue or to come up with other programs,” Yamashita said. “So once we find out what that is, then the Legislature will react. Even though session is done, we still are monitoring and working on that.”

Yamashita and other lawmakers have some unfinished business after this session, which was suspended back in March and reconvened this summer.

Many bills died or were deferred because lawmakers felt they needed more time to vet them or just weren’t able to address them with more pressing issues like a $1 billion budget shortfall.

One measure in Maui County’s package of bills to the Legislature would’ve helped the county use general excise tax revenue for transportation infrastructure. State lawmakers had changed the measure to address housing instead, but it died as business and government locked down.

“Unfortunately, these types of measures during a downturn is probably not the right time,” Yamashita said.

However, he was pleased with some results of the session, including $50 million that was put into the Dwelling Unit Revolving Fund for housing infrastructure on the Neighbor Islands. He plans to work with the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. to get most of those funds to Maui “because we already have the partnership with the Hawaii Community Foundation in working on this.”

Lawmakers said they’d also be keeping an eye on how the Public Utilities Commission responds to Young Brothers’ request for a 47 percent rate hike. The shipping company had asked the Legislature for $25 million in CARES Act funds.

Senate President Ronald Kouchi, who represents Kauai and Niihau, said he was concerned that Young Brothers didn’t have a long-term survival plan that would warrant a bailout from the Legislature. English said part of the problem is that other companies have been able to “cherry pick,” servicing only certain ports that made money, while Young Brothers, as a regulated carrier, has to serve all ports. Moving forward, he said that “an even playing field is of paramount importance.”

After the news conference, the Maui lawmakers also expressed hesitance about the state’s plan to allow visitors to bypass quarantine if they can show proof of a negative COVID-19 test starting Aug. 1.

English said he’s “not comfortable with Aug. 1 no matter what the plan is.” He worried about the rate of false negatives, likening it to flipping a coin.

“The combination of that makes me more concerned,” he said. “There is a huge portion of people that want to open the economy, we really understand that, but what good is it if everyone’s sick?”

Keith-Agaran, who is vice chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said that Hawaii should keep monitoring trends locally and in states that historically send visitors to the islands.

“We already know that testing capabilities locally have been impacted by the situation throughout the Sunbelt,” he said. “We should not reopen if the governor and the mayors determine the risks to the health of our local residents are too great — either because too few visitors take advantage of the testing or the testing is not available or Mainland conditions reduce the capability of our local hospitals to handle a surge in cases.”

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

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