A Different Kind of Emergency in Government
by Tom Yamachika, President, Tax Foundation Hawaii
According to Kali Watson, director of the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands (DHHL), we have a new emergency in Hawaii state government. But it’s probably not the kind you’re used to.
They need to spend money. Quickly.
As you probably remember, in the 2022 legislative session, the legislature threw $600 million at DHHL, hoping that the money would help clear the backlog of Hawaiian beneficiaries waiting for a house on Hawaiian Homestead land. Some of these beneficiaries have been waiting for decades, and quite a few have died in line.
And, to emphasize that they were serious, lawmakers said that if the money isn’t spent by June 30, 2025, it expires. Unspent monies will simply go back to the general fund and be repurposed for other things (such as a first responders’ training center in Central Oahu that the Honolulu Police Department doesn’t want).
The problem is, however, that raw money doesn’t just magically convert into houses on Homestead land. Agency staff have to plan out developments, work with contractors to put down infrastructure, navigate the state and county permitting processes, and so forth.
But there is a huge vacancy rate in State government, around 30%. Not just for DHHL, but statewide across all agencies. DHHL itself has around 60 positions that need to be filled, according to reporting by KITV. Its operating budget shows 204 permanent and 2 temporary positions.
So, DHHL is in dire need of warm bodies. Some of the position openings, Engineer V, for example, do require relevant experience, but many of the others don’t. DHHL says they can provide lots of on-the-job training.
And, lest we forget, working at the DHHL, as with other state or county government agencies or nonprofits, can help you if you have a federal student loan. Specifically, if you are working at a government agency or nonprofit and you make 120 payments toward the loan, the federal government will forgive the rest. It’s even better: if your payments were paused because of the COVID-19 pandemic, payments you didn’t need to make still count toward the 120 (if you were working for an eligible employer during that time and you file a form certifying your employment for the pause period).
And while these new employees are working on infrastructure for proposed new developments, maybe they can help with existing homestead developments as well. Some of the homestead lands are hurting for water access, for example, and the water that they do get costs a lot more. Some of them are being charged more than six times the county rate for water, and not because someone is gouging the homeowners; the water company providing it is regulated by the Public Utilities Commission, so presumably the high rates are because the costs of getting that water are much greater.
So, our best wishes go out to DHHL. Hopefully, they will be able to meet the crisis confronting them by staffing up, conducting great training, and then pulling out all the stops trying to help our beleaguered Home Lands beneficiaries.