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Hawaii Lawmakers Coalition to Uplift Working-Class Households

The bipartisan Working Families Caucus will bolster the finances of lower-income households through legislation addressing issues such as paid sick and family leave, tax credits and an increased minimum wage.

(TNS) — A diverse group of Hawaii lawmakers has formed a new coalition to elevate legislative efforts aimed at improving economic conditions for much of the local working class, including households with children.

Fourteen lawmakers including the lone Republican in the state Senate have established the Working Families Caucus, which plans to sponsor five bills to bolster the finances of lower-income residents through wage, benefit and tax policy changes.

Rep. Jeanne Kapela (D, Naalehu- Captain Cook- Keauhou ) led the formation of the caucus and will serve as its chairwoman.

"I think it's about time that we push for, fight for and pass legislation that will uplift Hawaii's working families, " she said in an interview.

A package of bills sponsored by the caucus, Kapela said, will include a measure to make the state's earned income tax credit, which is set to expire at the end of this year, permanent and refundable.

Other caucus bills will aim to exempt unemployment payments from state personal income taxes, create paid sick and family leave programs for all workers, expand a tax credit for renters that hasn't been adjusted since the 1980s, and raise Hawaii's minimum wage to $18 an hour by 2026 while also linking future step-ups to cost-of-living increases.

Some of these issues have been the subject of bills in past years, but Kapela said the coronavirus pandemic -triggered economic fallout that began two years ago and continues this year makes the issues more urgent to address.

"It exposed that big gap (in economic stability ) that continues to grow, " she said. "We can't allow that gap to widen further."

In a statement announcing the caucus, Kapela also said, "We cannot allow working families to suffer, while the wealthy continue to commodify our islands. We must commit to putting people before profit by providing financial prosperity for financially challenged residents and ensuring that the rich pay their fair share to help our most vulnerable neighbors."

Keli 'i Akina, president and CEO of the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, said trying to help working families is a laudable goal but that many proposals put forth by the new caucus are likely to be counterproductive, in part by pushing businesses to cut jobs, or could inflate the cost of living.

"A better approach, " he said in a statement, "would be to embrace policies that will lower the cost of living for all Hawaii residents."

Caucuses can help improve the chances for bills to pass depending on the number and composition of members, though division among lawmakers is still possible in the face of expected opposition from special-interest groups, affected industries and others.

Kapela said she expects higher passing chances for bills sponsored by the new caucus because some issues overlap with other more-established caucuses such as the keiki caucus and progressive caucus.

"It's definitely an extra boost, " she said. "Working together we have this broader coalition of voices."

Members of the new caucus in the state House are Kapela and Reps. Sonny Ganaden, Cedric Gates, Matthew LoPresti, Nicole Lowen, John Mizuno, Amy Perruso, Adrian Tam, Chris Todd and Tina Wildberger.

Four senators, including Republican Kurt Fevella, also are caucus members. The other three are Sens. Laura Acasio, Stanley Chang and Karl Rhoads.

Rhoads (D, Downtown-Nuuanu-Liliha ) thinks there is a pretty good chance that one or more—but not all—of the bills from the caucus pass this year.

"I think the political ground has shifted somewhat, " he said. "It does feel to me, in the pandemic, that we see how close to the edge people live."

At least one initiative of the caucus is also a goal for House Speaker Scott Saiki, who recently said he plans to introduce a bill to raise the minimum wage to $18.

Bills to increase Hawaii's minimum wage, which most recently rose in 2018 to $10.10 an hour, have failed in each of the past two years amid objections from businesses that have suffered financially during the pandemic.

Kapela said she is hopeful that some initiatives pursued by the new caucus will have a better chance of passing given that the state's financial outlook is stronger this year.

Gov. David Ige reserved $1 billion in his proposed budget for the state's emergency savings account. That suggestion has been dismissed by some key lawmakers, including Saiki, who said such revenue should go toward paying for things that have suffered during the pandemic.

In Kapela's view, issues being taken up by the new caucus are worthy of such spending.

"Eliminating economic inequality is essential to establishing a society that advances the public interest, not just the interests of the economically privileged, " she said in her statement. "By creating a living wage, paid sick and family leave programs and tax fairness for those facing financial hardship, we can generate an economy that delivers compassion for the working families who strive each day to build a better future for our island home."

(c)2022 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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