HONOLULU — At the Hawaiʻi State Capitol, busloads of people arrived more than an hour before the start of the 32nd State Legislature. For nearly three years, the COVID-19 pandemic forced the House and Senate to operate solemnly online, but Wednesday the public was back and the mood was festive.
And, there was no mistaking this was the State Legislature of the Aloha State. There was Hawaiian music, hula, poi making, chanting, a multitude of aloha wear and the occasional bellow from a conch shell. Some legislators’ faces could barely be seen with all the lei around their necks.
The Makaha Sons filled the House of Representatives with their golden voices twice during the chamber’s first day of work to the delight of legislators, dignitaries and those watching from the gallery.
Hugs were plentiful — including a big bearhug from behind that Gov. Green gave to Senate President Ronald D. Kouchi while he was addressing the chamber and talking about cooperation.
There has been pre-session tension and talks of power struggles between the chambers and the new governor, despite the leadership all being from the same Democrat party.
By the end of their second set on the House floor, The Makaha Sons had the entire chamber clapping along as heads bobbed and toes tapped to the music — a few people even busted out some small kine dance moves as they watched and listened. Even a stray pigeon got in on the action at one point, checking things out before flying up and out of the building through the open rotunda roof.
Cultural demonstrations and other activities continued on the first floor of the Capitol throughout the day. After they were finished with their first day’s business, lawmakers and officials returned to their offices, with many offering food and snacks to constituents and others attending opening day.
The governor’s office had chocolate covered fortune cookies. One of the tasty treats contained the message: “Wishing you good fortune in 2023. Governor Josh Green.”
The pomp and circumstance celebrated not just a fresh start for lawmakers, many of whom are also new to their posts after redistricting last year, but also renewal of in-person civic engagement. Members of the public and leaders of businesses, organizations and other agencies responded by turning out in droves.
Dignitaries included US Sen. Mazie Hirono, US Reps. Ed Case and Jill Tokuda, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, Hawai’i Supreme Court Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald, who gave the oath of office to the Senate, and the court’s associate judges, four former Hawaiʻi governors, City and County of Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, Kaua‘i County Mayor Derek Kawakami and the chairpersons of each of the state’s four counties. Hawai‘i County Council members Jennifer Kagiwada, Sue Lee Loy, Rebecca Villegas and Ashley Kierkiewicz also attended opening day.
House Speaker Scott Saiki said in his opening day remarks that Chris West, president of International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 142, told him something he thought was spot on for this year’s opening day: “He said, ‘It’s cool to have Hawai‘i back.’”
Saiki’s remarks highlighted the challenges the state faced during the COVID pandemic.
“The past three years impacted everyone in our community,” the speaker said. “Stay-at-home parents instantly became homeroom teachers. Students could no longer have daily interactions with other students. Employees faced fiscal uncertainty. Employers faced business uncertainty. Individuals and communities already at a disadvantage when times are good carried even more hardships. Families lost loved ones, including the recent loss of community members and leaders, and our health care professionals and first responders worked tirelessly through it all.”
He said legislators and the entire state were able to adapt and learn throughout the pandemic.
“In the face of adversity, this House rejected business as usual and arose in action and inquiry in unconventional ways,” the speaker said. “We asked the community to work with us in ways that were outside the box to better understand conditions and aspirations, and to produce results.”
One of those groups was the House’s Maunakea Working Group, which met for a year a half during the pandemic to propose a new governance structure for Maunakea on the Big Island. The proposal is now law and being implemented.
“Simply put, this group is showing us how we can resolve conflict in our state,” Saiki said.
It’s now time to incorporate those lessons learned and put them to work.
“The pandemic taught us that if we don’t meet challenges directly and timely, they will only grow larger, more difficult and more divisive,” Saiki said.
There will be many issues legislators in both chambers take up this year. House priorities include making Hawai‘i more affordable for its residents, including boosting middle- and low-income families through tax relief; homelessness; affordable housing; gaps in the state’s mental health system, which were only exacerbated by the pandemic; and climate change.
Saiki said the state has an opportunity and the resources — there is a $1.8 billion surplus on the books thanks to federal coronavirus relief funds and Hawai‘i’s economic resilience during the pandemic — to focus on those unresolved issues that often seem insurmountable.
“In all of these areas, we open this session pledging resolve and fresh perspectives,” the speaker said.
That includes working with Gov. Green.
“The House will work with Gov. Green and his team in good faith and in a positive manner so that we can solve problems and bring results to Hawai‘i residents,” Saiki said.
The governor agreed, saying after the Legislature adjourned its opening sessions that while there might be arguments from time to time as there are in any family, and there might be different ideas and pathways to accomplish their goals, he and the Legislature are are on the same page — they’re all in this together.
He’s excited to work with legislators and agreed that the state has the chance to resolve some longstanding issues.
Green thinks there can be some meaningful change made this year: “This is the time,” Green said. “The time to move forward is now.”
He wants to see the Legislature succeed for the people of Hawai‘i and is committed to moving measures forward at an accelerated rate.
“It’s best to take on a problem when it’s in front of you,” Green said.
He’ll lay out more of his agenda for 2023 during his State of the State address Jan. 23.
Saiki said there is opportunity for all legislators — freshmen members with their enthusiasm and energy, sophomore members with the benefit of fresh perspectives on existing issues and veterans with institutional and experiential knowledge.
The speaker took a page out of the “Sesame Street” playbook and said Wednesday’s “Word of the Day” was cooperation. While Saiki spoke, a man who was protesting loudly from the gallery, saying things such as “stop worshipping money” and “this is our home,” was removed from the House chamber. That didn’t phase the speaker, who continued making his point.
Saiki said in order for Hawai‘i to be successful, “we must all endeavor to be in cooperation with each other” and be routinely challenged to serve with courage, resilience and resolve.
“Let’s resolve to face and deal with problems — together — with and for the community,” he said. “Let’s be resilient in the face of adverse conditions. Let’s have the courage to make this time and labor count — for all.”