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Hawaii lawmakers talk minimum wage hike as session opens

January 17, 2019
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Hawaii Senate President Ron Kouchi speaks on the opening day of the state Legislature in Honolulu on Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2019. Hawaii lawmakers opened a new session of the state Legislature on Wednesday with music, speeches and chants. (AP Photo/Audrey McAvoy)

HONOLULU (AP) — Lawmakers gathering for the first day of a new legislative session said Wednesday they will consider raising the state’s minimum wage.

The state last boosted its minimum wage in 2014, when legislation gradually increased it from $7.25 to $10.10 over four years.

Senate President Ron Kouchi said his chamber would discuss an incremental increase and Gov. David Ige told reporters after Kouchi’s speech that he’s considering a raise to $15.

Ige said officials will need to balance the needs of working people and small businesses.

“How would the small businesses be able to respond to increasing their costs to $15? I think there will be lots of conversations about how we can do that,” Ige said, adding that most jobs in Hawaii are created by small businesses.

Sen. Kurt Fevella, the Senate’s only Republican, said lawmakers should try rolling out a minimum wage hike for government workers first.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said lawmakers need to “re-examine wage disparity, while also considering the impact on those who pay wages.”

Kouchi said his chamber would also address legalizing marijuana, boosting affordable housing and reducing homelessness. He singled out help for the Big Island as it recovers from last year’s Kilauea lava flows, and Kauai, as it recovers from last year’s flooding.

“We are not going to be strong if each one of our counties aren’t strong,” Kouchi said in his speech. “So we want to see you prosperous and healthy again.”

On legalizing marijuana, Ige said he had some concerns because Hawaii is isolated from the rest of the country and it’s illegal under federal law to possess marijuana depending on the amount being carried.

“Any person coming to the islands has to know that they’re crossing a federal boundary which would make them subject to criminal sanctions,” he said.

Sen. Kalani English, the Senate majority leader, said he believe the issue had reached a “tipping point” as many states have legalized marijuana for either recreational or medical use. Hawaii already allows it for medical purposes.

English, who represents parts of Maui, Lanai and Molokai, said marijuana would be a revenue source for Hawaii because the state could tax it.

The state Senate now has an opposition party member for the first time in two years after voters in Ewa Beach elected Fevella. The 25-member chamber was all-Democrat from 2016 to 2018.

The state House has five Republicans and 46 Democrats — the same breakdown as last session.

Education funding, the minimum wage, the detention of defendants before trial and bail reform are also expected to be key issues this session.

Lawmakers are scheduled to adjourn on May 2.

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