HONOLULU (KHON2) — State lawmakers say the legislative session, which starts on Wednesday, Jan. 20, will be the most difficult they’ve ever had to face. With the worst unemployment in the country and a gloomy budget outlook, they say tough decisions lie ahead.
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House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke says the latest assessment from the Council on Revenues puts the state at a deficit of one billion dollars over the next two years.
In order to pay unemployment benefits, the state had to borrow $700 million last year. The state might have to borrow another one billion this year.
“The state of Hawaii has the worst unemployment record right now because we’re heavily dependent on tourism and the hospitality industry,” said. Rep. Luke. “We don’t see that rebounding anytime soon.”
She adds that the state has $400 million in rainy day funds that can help. While the federal government might provide some relief, she says it’s too optimistic to count on anything substantial.
Luke adds worker furloughs will only make it harder for the state to rebound. Instead, the state needs to take a hard look at what services can be cut.
“We’ll be aggressively looking at government services and whether we can consolidate,” said Luke. “There are going to be services that we may not be able to provide or reduce. So these are the hard choices we would have to make in the next several months.”
One of the easier choices will be changing the law for violating the emergency order such as not wearing a mask in public. There’s strong support to change it from a misdemeanor into more of a traffic violation.
“So at least for first offenses we’d like to move it back to more like a traffic ticket,” said Sen. Karl Rhoads, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman. “Maybe for second and third offenses, some of these should be more stringent.”
He says legalizing gambling will likely get more discussion this year as an option for the state to get out of the budget crisis. But ultimately he still does not see enough support to make it happen.
“There are stuff that goes along with gambling that counteracts the benefit to a certain extent,” he said. “That’s one reason I’ve always been opposed to it is because the negatives outweigh the positives.”