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Lawmakers mull future of island post-lockdown

State lawmakers and County Council members are conflicted about the future of tourism on the Big Island in the eventual aftermath of the COVID-19 lockdown.

During a videoconference call between several East Hawaii legislators and council members on Thursday night, several participants questioned how much recovery resources should be spent on restoring the tourism industry, on which much of the state’s economy relies upon.

“It’s my fear that what little money we’ll have to spend is going to be prioritized for getting our tourism engine back on its feet,” said state Sen. Russell Ruderman of Puna. “I understand the need to do that, as that’s a lot of people’s jobs and it’s the only answer in the short term, but my fear is that it will suck up all the money there is and all the energy there is, and the idea of diversifying the economy will go on the backburner as always.”

But, although Puna Councilman Matt Kaneali‘i-Kleinfelder agreed — saying the state has an opportunity to broaden its economy and become more self-reliant after the COVID-19 crisis — the Thursday conference identified few potential solutions.

Ruderman conceived of a plan that would open hotels and other hospitality businesses to kama‘aina only, allowing local tourist-centric businesses to begin to recover without endangering the state by drawing in out-of-state visitors, but admitted that such a plan was only theoretical.

Much of the videoconference was spent admitting that there are no clear solutions for the immediate problems created by the coronavirus crisis.

Council Chairman Aaron Chung of Hilo said that much of the county’s budget is up in the air, thanks to the indefinite suspension of the 2020 legislative session, which was to grant the county, among other things, $19 million from the state’s Transient Accommodations Tax collections.

“There is a trickle-down affect that we’re all concerned about,” Chung said. “We normally get $19 million from the TAT; we don’t know if the Legislature is going to sequester or withhold that money. … The real property tax payments are due in August sometime. There has been some talk about possibly postponing that until October, but that would probably wreak havoc on the county’s situation.”

Property taxes are the county’s No. 1 source of revenue.

Rep. Mark Nakashima of Hamakua said there are ongoing discussions regarding when the state Legislature will reconvene. Most agree that such an event cannot occur until after the statewide stay-at-home order is lifted, although that date, currently scheduled for the end of May, is well after when the 2020 legislative session is scheduled to end.

Gen. Ken Hara, incident commander for the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency, reiterated during the call that any attempt to reopen the state must be weighed against the risk of introducing new vectors for COVID-19 infection.

However, Hara added that a phased plan for reopening the state might be revealed in the next few days. That plan would include a series of conditions that would allow certain industries to reopen if the number of new cases remains under a certain level.

Email Michael Brestovansky at mbrestovansky@hawaiitribune-herald.com.
Source: Hawaii Tribune Herald

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