Hawaii 2021 legislature to tackle budget shortfall, COVID-19 vaccine rollout, in 2021

Hawaii’s 2021 legislative session will look different than usual as the state’s legislature deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.

The legislature will hold committee meetings remotely, move their public commenting to an online system and will likely have multiple special sessions throughout the year to deal with the ever-changing nature of the pandemic.

 

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“I’ve been pushing for remote access for several years because it’s difficult for people on Oahu to get to a hearing … and it’s even more difficult for members of the neighbor islands,” said Sen. Jarrett Keohokalole during a panel on Hawaii’s legislature in 2021 at the State of Reform Hawaii conference on Thursday. ”I think this is actually going to be a significant improvement in our legislative process.”

Keohokalole believes that increased access will help more stakeholders and citizens get involved with the legislature. Streaming all meetings and hearings online will also allow residents to watch recordings of the streams after they occur, an option that did not exist before.

The coronavirus pandemic is not the only challenge the legislature will have to deal with this year, however. Hawaii is required to have a balanced budget each year. Emergency spending due to the pandemic combined with a loss of tax revenue has left the state facing a shortfall. The legislature will need to balance the budget with a series of cuts, the raising of revenue and by consolidating overlapping programs.

Hawaii will also need to find funding for programs related to the pandemic. Rep. Linda Ichiyama, chair of the House Pandemic and Disaster Preparedness Committee oversees testing, contact tracing, vaccine rollout and more programs related to the pandemic. Ichiyama’s committee is also working to future-proof the state’s disaster response, taking lessons learned from COVID-19 and applying them to future disasters.

Hawaii has received a limited supply of the COVID-19 vaccines thus far. The state has been allocated 154,000 doses as of Friday morning, with nearly 48,000 doses being administered in the state. Limited allocation, and the nature of Hawaii as a state spread out across multiple islands, has made getting vaccines to smaller, rural, communities a challenge.

“We are working with our pharmacy partners to make sure we reach those rural communities,” Ichiyama said. “The slowdown right now is the limited supply.”

Keohokalole mentioned that the rollout on each island will be different than the others due to each island’s unique demographics.

Another issue facing rural areas and smaller islands in Hawaii is access to telehealth. Many areas do not have stable broadband connection making it difficult for them to access medical care during the pandemic.

“We’re looking at ways to expand telehealth reach throughout the neighboring islands,” Rep. Ryan Yamane, chair of the House Health, Human Services and Homelessness committee said.

The committee is intent on passing bills to expand broadband in the state, while continuing some programs from 2020. Last year, laptops and other devices were given to school children and Wi-Fi hotspots were set up in underserved areas in order to expand access to education and health.

Yamane mentioned that budget cuts could prove to be a hurdle in his committee’s efforts, though.