Civil Beat’s Civil Cafe 2020 Legislative Preview Rehashes Minimum Wage, Homelessness

A preview (yawn) of another term...

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The most useful takeaway at Wednesday’s 2020 Legislative Preview were the words of Rep. Cynthia Thielan, who has announced that she is leaving the House after 30 years of service to Hawaii. “The best way to reach out is to come to Committee hearings and testify on bills,” she said. “Show up in person to change legislation. Explain your position. Don’t just read… Speak from your heart.”

As a reporter for over 30 years, I have seen the effect of heartfelt testimony; she is right.

The panel included reporter CB Blaze Lovell, who covers the state legislature (and who did a darn good job of covering this weekend’s tragic police shooting) and CB Political Editor Chad Blair, acting as facilitator. Gavin Thornton, executive director of Hawai’i Appleseed Center for Law & Economic Justice, Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole, and the Rep. Cynthia Thielen.

Blair kicked off the discussion musing about the unexpected unity among the majority members of both the House and Senate to support legislation to raise the minimum wage to $13/hour, improving schools, create more affordable housing and fight homelessness – all issues critical to the future of Hawaii.

Keohokalole took advantage of the opportunity to address the State’s crisis of homelessness, mental illness and drug addiction. He expressed his frustration with the the cycle of substance abuse, jail and hospitalizations – which usually ends by returning people to the streets still homeless and addicted. “We need to reposition some of our resources; we’re burning through money for a population that needs more help than we can provide.” He wants to expand what he termed as “underutilized state health facilities,” to expand mental health opportunities.

None of that is a revelation; nor does it solve the housing crisis, the addiction problem, the wage gap or homelessness. But it sounds good.

Keohokalole also talked about decriminalizing and legalizing drugs, starting with marijuana. Possession of up to 3 grams of marijuana carries a $130 fine, though it is still not legal in Hawaii. “We have to wait for a new governor,” he said, referring to Gov. David Ige.

Ige has been clear on his position. “As long as it’s illegal from the federal government perspective, I really don’t believe we should be making it legal for recreational purposes,” he said. He neither signed nor vetoed the law, allowing it to become law.

Thielen has long promoted the cultivation of industrial (non-THC) hemp, used in the production of everything from food to cosmetics, which she mentioned during the discussion.

And while it is terrific that state legislators acknowledge that the cost of living is out of reach for most Hawaiians, it is also clear that the proposed $13/hour is not a “livable wage.” That was confirmed by Gavin Thornton, who pointed out that the current rate, $10.10/hour, is $21,000 annually. It would be $13 in 2024, which would hardly keep up with inflation.

His organization is pushing for $17 minimum wage by 2025. “Today, we need to figure out a way to make it possible to make ends meet. Nearly half [the population] don’t earn enough,” referring to the ALICE report by the Aloha United Way. Pointing to the number of people migrating off the island, he said that Hawaii has the lowest wages in the nation, when figuring in the cost of living.

Thornton encouraged the legislation’s goal of expanding early childhood education for Pre-K kids, calling it a “smart investment.” His Appleseed “Wish List” included a greater hike in the minimum wage and paid family leave to care for family members and newborns.

Thielen was asked about her position on the last piece of the rail puzzle, currently set to include seven stations between Kaka’ako and Ala Moana. “We can’t control the sea level rise,” she said, though legislators continue to approve easements for sea walls and embankments for 55-year periods. “We’re slow to recognize the emerging problem problem of the emerging sea. We’re not paying attention.” HB1611 would authorize the Board of Land and Natural Resources to provide shoreline encroachment easements for not more than 10 years to landowners with structures that encroach on the shoreline, and requires that the policy adopted considers the impact of the expected rising sea levels on the structures.

In addition to acknowledging the impact of global warming on an island state, Thielen also noted that there were no women in leadership on opening day Jan. 15. “Not a single woman up there e with the leaders calling the shots… 100% men. There needs to be better equality in this building and more women elected.”

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