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Star-Advertiser Column: Don’t let House Gut the Minimum Wage

Hawaii’s House and Senate have both passed bills to raise the minimum wage to at least $18. The House’s bill would get to that figure by 2028. Senator Taniguchi who has been championing an increase in the minimum wage for years introduced an $18 by 2026 bill that the Senate passed. The different chambers need to now work together on a compromise to do what’s best for Hawaii’s working families and economy.

The time to compromise on the different bills is called “conference committee” in Hawaii and occurs during the last two weeks of the legislative session. Historically, differences between hundreds of bills need to be worked out during this time. Bills ranging from agriculture subsidies to campaign spending to climate change are all negotiated during this short window.

When both chambers come to an agreement during conference committee, the bill will pass and head to the governor’s desk. When matching language cannot be agreed upon, the bill dies for an entire year.

Although the years and dollars amounts are different, our current situation is similar to what happened in 2019. That year the House passed a $12.50 minimum wage bill with the Senate passing Senator Taniguchi’s $15 bill, so they needed to work together on a compromise.

That year, after a full year of a stagnant minimum wage, the conference conferee and Finance Chair, Representative Luke, refused to agree to any minimum wage raise. This includes the $12.50 bill the House had already passed through their chamber twice over the previous few months. This killed any chance of raising the minimum wage and left workers with no raises despite both chambers passing increases during the 2019 session.

With media coverage spread out among the hundreds of bills that get passed and die during this time, it was easier for Rep. Luke and House Speaker Saiki to dodge public responsibility for killing the bill.

Then in 2020 the House proposed a $13 minimum wage bill that was ultimately killed and in 2021 the House passed no minimum wage bills. Now in 2022 both chambers have passed $18 bills and it’s again time to work out the details.

Given the recent history of House behavior, workers are fearful that Luke and Saiki will once again renege on their proposal. Their bill also includes language allowing tipped workers to be paid much less than everyone else. Will the House refuse to move away from this policy that started in the US as a way for business owners to avoid paying recently freed slaves after the Civil War?

Senator Taniguchi and the Senate support $18 per hour by 2026. Will the House force the bill to be weaker than that?

With only a few weeks left before session ends, hopefully Senate President Kouchi and House Speaker Saiki are already working out the details. Failure to come to an agreement 3 years ago has led to workers making $6,000 less per year now than they otherwise would have.

Our economy has paid the price too, as increased wages lead to a boost in spending and jobs, growing overall economic activity. Hawaii’s number of businesses, employed workers, and economic spending grew faster during the last minimum wage increase than in the previous years.

Working families and our economy have been suffering for decades with wages that fail to come close to a livable standard. Fortunately both chambers are finally acting like this deficit needs to be closed. We need them to stand by their promises to workers and our economy and help Senator Taniguchi finally push this bill over the finish line and on to the governor’s desk.

Nate Hix is director of the advocacy group Living Wage Hawaii.


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