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State lawmakers open new legislative session amid pandemic

COVID-19 protocols kept public outside

The Associated Press

HONOLULU — State lawmakers opened a new legislative session Wednesday, with coronavirus protections in place like masks and clear plastic shields separating their seats.

Public health protocols to prevent the spread of the disease blocked the public from entering the state Capitol. That meant no open houses and snacks in lawmakers’ offices.

The public couldn’t even enter the building’s open air rotunda — typically the site of speeches and protests — because of heightened security adopted after rioters supporting former President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago.

“This is a sign of the times. We want to ensure the health and public safety of our members and our staff,” House Majority Leader Della Au Belatti told reporters.

Lawmakers have a full agenda in the months ahead. At the top will be deciding how to balance the state’s budget, with an economic slowdown triggered by the pandemic having drastically depleted state tax revenue.

Gov. David Ige has proposed cutting spending and potentially raising taxes, depending on how much need there is for additional revenue. The Democratic governor has put off, at least until July, a plan to furlough state workers and cut their pay by about 9 percent.

The pandemic failed to stop all traditions: Lawmakers still donned flower lei and posed for photos to commemorate the day. But the public gallery overlooking the House chamber, which is usually jammed with family and supporters, was mostly empty.

The Senate declined to allow media in their chamber. The House admitted a few camera crews, photographers and reporters. Both streamed their floor sessions live online.

The public isn’t likely to be allowed inside the Capitol the rest of the session, which is scheduled to last through April 29. For the first time, however, lawmakers will accept testimony over Zoom.

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