Amid Pandemic, Historic Legislative Session Comes to a Close

By Heather Lavoie

This year’s legislative session is one for the history books. Even before COVID-19, nonprofits, legislators, and community members could agree that too many families in Hawai’i were holding their breath — one disaster away from financial ruin.

In January, the state was in a sound financial place and advocates and legislators had big dreams for our future. Working with our Community Champion partners and the legislative Keiki Caucus, Hawai’i Children’s Action Network began this session with around 30 Children’s Policy Agenda bills with the potential to help children and their families here to thrive. 

The Agenda included bills to create a state paid family leave program, provide support for families experiencing diaper need, and create a family visitation facility at a correctional center.  The House and Senate legislative leadership also created a joint package focused on economic stability (including raising the minimum wage), affordable housing, and education (expanding subsidies for families to purchase child care and preschool). As the COVID-19 crisis struck Hawaiʻi, just before the session’s halfway mark, Senate and House leadership announced that the legislature would go into an immediate and indefinite recess for the safety of all its members. The joint leadership package, our Children’s Policy Agenda, and the entire 2020 legislative session were put on hold, as the world faced the global coronavirus pandemic. 

Legislators reconvened in May, with a new budget shortfall to fill and $635 million of federal CARES Act relief funds to spend. During this brief continuation of the legislative session, they passed the state budget bill (HB2200) and put some of the federal CARES Act funds into the state rainy day fund. Legislators then recessed again. 

On June 22, the legislature reconvened again to finish the remainder of the session calendar.  During this time, they approved a plan to spend the federal CARES Act money to help residents and businesses. Their spending plan included:

  • Funding to Hawai’i, Maui, and Kauai counties; 
  • $100 million towards rental assistance; 
  • $230 million for additional unemployment assistance;
  • $15 million to support child care; 
  • $100 million to the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency;
  • $15 million to the Hawai’i Technology Development Corporation;
  • $90 million to the Department of Transportation; 
  • $36 million to the Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism; and
  • $39 million to the Governor for unanticipated needs.

The legislature also focused on bills that did not require appropriations, due to the state’s economic situation. This meant some of the joint package bills agreed upon at the beginning of the session, like the bill to increase the minimum wage, would not pass.  

Of the Children’s Policy Agenda bills, three passed and are now going to Governor Ige for final approval.  

  • SB2486, Relating to DOE Data Collection and Transparency, will require the Department of Education to establish a standardized data collection process for schools and complex areas to maintain records and report data to the department. The department will be required to submit an annual report to the legislature including data collected about student discipline, seclusion, restraint, and other information on students. 
  • HB2543, Relating to Access to Learning, will expand Preschool Open Doors Program eligibility to all children who are 3 to 4 years old and are in the two-year window before entering kindergarten. The bill establishes a state goal of ensuring all children 3 or 4 years old are enrolled in a preschool program by the year 2032. 
  • HB1346, Relating to Early Childhood Education, will prohibit the suspension or expulsion of children participating in the Executive Office on Early Learning's Public Prekindergarten Program.

Other than the CPA bills, there were other important bills passed relating to the environment, criminal justice reforms, and education. 

During this unique seven-month-long legislative session, the legislature faced many unprecedented challenges and a budget shortfall of historic proportions. The global pandemic challenged how the entire legislative process is conducted; it forced the legislature to rewrite its own rules to allow its members to attend remotely and forced constituents to submit testimony only via the internet and tune in to hearings on Olelo rather than attend in person. 

Now, policymakers must craft a long-term recovery plan and to imagine a new post-COVID-19 Hawai’i before the 2021 legislative session. There is still a lot of work to be done to improve the quality of life for our keiki and ensure economic security for their families. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the financial struggles families were already facing here as a result of the high cost of living. To ensure that all families here can survive and thrive, nonprofits, legislators, and community members must all come together again, as they did at the beginning of this session, to rebuild Hawai’i in the aftermath of COVID-19 and help the families that were struggling long before the pandemic ever hit. 

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