Summer 2021 Legislative Update

Legislative Update

by Lauren Zirbel

HFIA's success at the Legislature this year was due to our strategy of proactively supporting positive legislation and our ongoing work to build and maintain positive working relationships with our Senators and Representatives.

During the 2021 Legislative Session we were happy to host Membership Meetings featuring Representative Aaron Ling Johanson, Chair of the House Committee on Consumer Protection and Commerce, as well as Senator Rosalyn Baker, Chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce and Consumer Protection. These meetings are a valuable opportunity to touch base with these legislators and listen to their legislative priorities, share our priorities, and have them hear directly from members about their questions and concerns. This dialogue creates positive channels of communication that enable us to more successfully convey our message when we testify and communicate on legislative matters.

One of our main priorities this year was ensuring that a drastic minimum wage increase did not threaten our state’s economic recovery. We were proud to partner with the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii and other local business groups on this vital issue. We worked together throughout session to communicate with our Legislators the destabilizing effect that a minimum wage increase would have at this time. Our efforts were successful and an increase will not happen this year.

Another urgent issue for the 2021 legislative session was of course the unemployment insurance (UI) fund. The fund was not designed to handle the level of unemployment and economic disruption caused by the pandemic. Under the rules in place at the start of the year contributions by employers were set to increase several times over, for many their required contributions would have quadrupled, for others the increase would have been tenfold. We were fortunate to have the support of our legislative leaders and of course our partners in the Hawaii business community to make this a top priority and get changes to the UI rules passed early in session and signed into law on March 2, as Act 01.

This year many businesses also found themselves under threat due to inability to pay rent, and inability to collect rent from commercial tenants. Since last year HFIA had been part of a broad coalition working to enact Commercial Rent Relief using Federal funds. At the State legislature HB1324 made significant progress through the legislature but was not able to pass conference committee. Though the measure did not pass there has been success in brining attention to this important issue and creating a large group of stakeholders committed to working together on the next phases of solving this problem.

Prior to session we were happy to work closely with Representative Richard Onishi, the Farm Bureau, several HFIA members, and other stakeholders as part of the Food Stream and Agricultural Subcommittee to create a package of bills aimed at improving local food production. This goal has been a priority for many years and this year’s measures were aimed at expanding programs that have delivered results, and getting actionable data to enable real progress in the future. Several bills that came out of this working group made significant progress through the legislature and we look forward to picking up this issue again next year.

Another local food program that we’ve been happily supporting for several years is the Double Up Food Bucks initiative, known as Da Bucks. This program doubles the purchasing power of SNAP dollars when used to purchase locally grown fruits and vegetables. The program has always had a cap of $10 per customer per visit and this year we’ve been advocating for SB512 to remove the limit. Removing the cap is a common sense way to increase SNAP users purchasing power for healthy local foods and keep more SNAP dollars in the local agricultural sector. We were also in strong support of SB348 to help diversify local beverage manufacturing by allowing water to be canned in the state. HFIA supported this measure last year but unfortunately it failed when session was disrupted due to COVID. Both of these measures passed final reading and have been sent to the Governor for signing.

While many things changed during session in 2021, some things stayed the same. As usual, HFIA spent time working to educate our legislators about the dangers of overregulation to our local businesses and economy. We opposed a range of bills that would have placed additional taxes, fees, and/or regulatory burdens on the sales of tobacco and alcohol. Two bills attempted to add additional taxes to sugar sweetened beverages and HFIA opposed. We also opposed attempts at additional bans of consumer goods such as containers, straws, sunscreen and other personal care products. Bills seeking to enact some form of extended producer responsibility were heard and HFIA opposed noting that these programs have not been attempted by any state and that given our size and location the negative impacts for Hawaii consumers could be severe. All of these measures failed to pass. A number of family leave bills were also heard this year. HFIA communicated with our legislators about the need to understand the full range of impacts and unintended consequences that these programs can have and ultimately none were passed.

Each year the volume of bills that fail is always much greater than the number that passes. Working to stop bad legislation from getting enacted is an important part of our mission. This year in particular we’re proud to have had so many positive pieces of legislation that we’ve championed achieve success. Fixing the unemployment fund and making real progress to increase local food production and consumption are significant victories. The success of these measure is the success of our association, our industry and our larger business community working together to solve problems for our state.

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