2023 featured “challenges galore,” but 2024 is an opportunity for the people of Hawaii to demonstrate their “resolve to move forward together and to accomplish great things.”
That was the message Grassroot Institute of Hawaii President and CEO Keli‘i Akina shared with radio host Johnny Miro of the H. Hawaii Media network on Sunday, the last day of 2023, as they reflected on the past and considered what might lie ahead.
Akina lamented the devastating August wildfires on Maui that destroyed Lahaina and killed 100 people, calling it the kind of event that everyone in Hawaii must work to make sure never happens again.
“Everyone needs to be involved in restoring Lahaina and coming up with long-term solutions so that that kind of tragedy doesn’t happen anywhere else in the islands,” he said. “We have been involved, in particular, in taking a look at what needs to change in government regulation so that there can be the quickest … and the most common-sense rebuilding. So, that’s something that we’re going to continue to work on quite a bit.”
Akina said some “bright lights” in 2023 included the passage of the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact, which will make it easier for out-of-state doctors to practice in Hawaii and help alleviate the state’s shortage of medical personnel.
There also were tax-relief measures enacted during the year, including the passage of a state bill allowing certain Hawaii businesses to deduct their state income taxes from their federal taxes, and county property tax reforms that will save millions of dollars for homeowners.
Akina expressed optimism about the “increased awareness of Hawaii’s dire housing situation during the last year at the Legislature and in the community.”
He said one of the “big breakthroughs” was the realization that “we don’t have to come up with a new perfect kind of housing because all we need to do is fix many of the regulations that we’ve had for many years that caused us to have a shortage of housing. And by doing that, we could have all the housing we need.”
Akina said some lawmakers might want to increase taxes to help address some of Hawaii’s pressing problems, but “we’ll be watching to make sure that in no way happens to the detriment of the well-being of our people.”
He urged the community to get involved with the legislative process in the new year because “the more we resolve in 2024 to be active, to stay aware, the better our state will be.”
To hear the entire 13:40-minute interview, click on the image below. A complete transcript follows.
12-31-23 Keli‘i Akina with host Johnny Miro on the H. Hawaii Media radio network
Johnny Miro: Good Sunday morning to you and happy New Year’s Eve 2023. I’m Johnny Miro Time once again for our public access programming here on our five Oahu radio stations at 107.5 FM, 101.5 FM, 101.1 FM, 97.1 FM and 96.7 FM.
Joining me once again, a member of the great Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. Their work can be found at grassrootinstitute.org. That’s grassrootinstitute.org.
What we’re going to be doing is having a retrospective on the year of 2023. Taking a look back with none other than the president and CEO of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, Keli‘i Akina.
Good morning to you, Keli‘i, and happy new year.
Keli‘i Akina: Well, good morning to you, Johnny, and to all your listeners. It’s a great new year upon us coming up in just a few hours. But we have had challenges galore the last year, and we’re gonna see what we’re made of going into the new year.
Miro: Yeah, no kidding. As we look back on 2023 — the ending, you know, just today — we see that there are many advances as well as some setbacks. The worst setback, of course, was the tragic, devastating fires on Maui Aug 8 has killed so many people, destroyed so many homes and businesses, especially Lahaina.
So, thank you once again for joining me this morning so you can share some of your views about what we’ve all experienced during this past momentous year, Keli‘i.
Akina: Well, as you mentioned, there were major challenges, especially the wildfires on the island of Maui. And perhaps, in a few minutes, you and I can talk a bit more about that.
But what this does is it forces us as a people here in Hawaii to really show our resolve to move forward together and to accomplish great things together. That’s what we believe in at the Grassroot Institute. And we want to be part of the community and everyone’s effort as we do go forward. There’s much work to do in this coming year.
Miro: What do you think were some of the highlights for Hawaii residents during the past year?
Akina: Well, despite the challenges, there were some victories for citizens who are fighting for better government and better community overall. One of the victories has to do with meeting the shortage of medical personnel.
Our listeners on the neighbor islands don’t have to be told how hard it is to get to a specialist or a regular doctor. Nowadays, there are so many shortages. But last year, we saw at the Legislature the passage of the Interstate Medical Licensure Compact for Hawaii.
And basically, all that means is that starting next year, we will be able to use the medical services of doctors from out of state. And that’s great, especially now with all of the advances of telemedicine. So, that was a real win.
Another win has to do with tax relief, especially for certain businesses, S corporations and so forth. These were authorized to deduct their state taxes from federal income taxes.
Also, property taxes — that was big in the news — but there was property tax relief at the county level, and that has saved millions for taxpayers on Kauai and on Oahu.
Finally, I’ll mention this one. There was an increased awareness of Hawaii’s dire housing situation during the last year at the Legislature and in the community. And this was exemplified by the governor’s emergency proclamation for housing. It didn’t solve all the problems, but we are heading in a direction where more attention is being paid to finding solutions for housing than we’ve seen in the past.
So, I would say these are bright lights of 2023.
Miro: Alright. So, let’s discuss that one a little bit further. You mentioned a few weeks ago, talked about the housing policy with one of your researchers. What kind of housing reforms do you hope to see the Legislature pass this coming year?
Akina: Well, the Legislature has given a lot of attention in the past to particular kinds of housing: tiny houses or the Tokyo model and so forth.
But one of the big breakthroughs was the realization that we don’t have to come up with a new perfect kind of housing because all we need to do is fix many of the regulations that we’ve had for many years that cause us to have a shortage of housing. And by doing that, we could have all the housing we need.
For example, at the Grassroot Institute, we did a major study showing what could be done. We could allow more multi-family homes. We could reduce lot sizes. We could deal with setback requirements and floor area ratios. A bunch of little things like this. Expand mixed-use zoning, implement by-right approvals, or reduce or abolishe parking minimums in certain areas, allow more accessory dwelling units and so forth.
So, the point is this: We have practical solutions that are starting to emerge now that we can actually act upon and solve our housing crisis. And I think the will to do so is growing, especially with the crisis on the island of Maui.
Miro: Can we get back to the tax front — what about that? I know you folks are really active on the property tax issue. The kind of successes — what did you see there? Because I know you folks were always out front about, speaking about policies.
Akina: Well, in 2023, people were very much focused at the county level on taxes. And so, we encouraged the Honolulu County Council to increase the tax rebate from $300 to $350. It sounds small, but it has a huge impact on taxpayers. And they did it, so that’s good news for citizens.
We also worked with Council for a higher homeowner exemption. And greater eligibility for a tax break for low-income homeowners. And that’s also something that’s going to help a lot of people.
And one of the things we were just really happy to do was to be involved on the ground level with people on Hawaii Island and on Kauai, and really coming up with better solutions for property tax. And so, some good property tax reforms were initiated. And that means a lot, especially to people who are on fixed income.
So, I think there was good news for 2023 in those areas.
Miro: Which of the islands, neighbor islands, has the best policy — or had the best success in policy in 2023 — as far as property taxes are concerned, in your opinion?
Akina: Well, we had some good advances on the Big Island — Hawaii Island — and on Kauai, and that was good to see. I think there’s room for improvement all across the state.
Miro: And back with the medical compacts, is there room for more of these to come in this upcoming session by the Legislature? The legislative session?
Akina: Right. Medical compacts simply mean that we are able to access doctors from other states — about 40 other states. But this is also something that could be possible for nurses, psychologists, counselors, occupational therapists, audiologists — I could go on and on — EMS personnel.
We’re finding critical shortages in many of these categories. And there is the opportunity in 2024 and as we go forward, to pass laws that allow us to participate in compacts in these professions. That’ll be a real plus for citizens across the state, and especially those of us who live on the neighbor islands where the shortages are very acute.
Miro: And it just had a loan forgiveness. The first of, I guess, a few payments of loan forgiveness for people getting into the medical profession. So, the governor announced that a few days ago. So that’s another bright spot to this year.
Keli‘i Akina, joining us from the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii, grassrootinstitute.org. He is the president and CEO of the organization. A lot of great studies on there. You can click on the website and get all the information, all the papers that have come out recently.
We’re doing a recap of 2023 as we head into the new year. Of course, when it comes to the tragic wildfires that devastated Lahaina, there’s a lot of talk about how to get that temporary and permanent housing built. Will you folks there, will you be involved in that conversation?
Akina: Everyone needs to be involved in restoring Lahaina and coming up with long-term solutions so that that kind of tragedy doesn’t happen anywhere else in the islands.
We have been involved, in particular, in taking a look at what needs to change in government regulation so that there can be the quickest rebuilding and the most common-sense rebuilding. And so, that’s something that we’re going to continue to work on quite a bit.
I know that as we look back on 2023, at least 100 people who were killed is going to be a dark spot for us and many others who have suffered as a result of those wildfires. But we’re going to work together to come up with solutions going into the future.
Miro: Yeah. Right now, I’m just seeing some modular homes being brought on. I haven’t really seen or heard of anything concrete as of this time.
How has the wildfire, Keli‘i, affected the state budget? I see people worried about their insurance rates going up, business and homes.
What do you expect in the 2024 session for taxation and spending?
Akina: Well, we’re going to have to be very cautious. Part of the reason is that entering 2023, there was a $10 billion surplus that was projected by our state. Where did that go? That is one of the real issues because there was quite a bit of spending — and calls for future spending — that may not be the best thing for the people of the island.
I think that we’re going to have to take a look at being more careful with regard to government spending; that’s absolutely essential. But we’re going to have to watch out because excessive costs — and especially rising costs due to the emergency and so forth — will cause the temptation amongst many lawmakers to actually seek to raise taxes.
So, we’ll be watching to make sure that in no way happens to the detriment of the well-being of our people.
Miro: You mentioned that, I guess that’s one of the main aspects. What would Grassroot Institute’s main priorities be heading into 2024? That, and what will you be watching out for next year? You only just mentioned that, but anything else?
Akina: Yes. In fact, I want to repeat that one of our important priorities will be healthcare licensure compacts, so that medical personnel and all kinds of professions will be available to the people.
Secondly, we’re going to be watching taxes very carefully, serving as a watchdog.
Along with that, government spending.
And third, very important, housing. We need to have reforms to many of the regulations at the state and county level. And we’re going to keep pushing for the common-sense reforms that will actually help us to increase the supply of housing.
Miro: Keli‘i Akina, the president and CEO of Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. As we wrap up 2023 together, anything else that you’d like to share with the listeners today to wrap things up?
Akina: I think the important thing is that in 2024, we’ve got to put into action the solutions that we already know about.
As mentioned earlier, we could easily solve most of our housing crisis by simply getting rid of and modernizing many of the regulations that prevent housing development, as well as implementing the little solutions that could actually allow more density in certain areas. That’s an important thing to do.
In addition to that, we need to continue watching our government to make sure that taxes are not increased. And to make sure the spending does not go up inordinately. All of this is gonna involve citizens being aware and being active, and that’s probably at the heart of it.
So, I think the more we resolve in 2024 to be active, to stay aware, the better our state will be.
Miro: Alright. Thank you for taking the time once again as we wrap up 2023, Keli‘i. Have the happiest of new years and a very prosperous and effective new year for Grassroot Institute of Hawaii.
And, I guess, hauoli makahiki hou. Enjoy the new year celebration and we will talk to you next year and your fine crew over there, fine staff at Grassroot Institute of Hawaii. Thanks for joining us once again.
Akina: Hauoli makahiki hou to you and to all your listeners.