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Hawaiʻi Advocates Win Refundable EITC and a Higher Minimum Wage by Centering Racial Equity, Working Families, and Commonsense Messaging

Alliance allies at Hawaiʻi Children’s Action Network (HCAN) worked in coalition with partner organizations this session to pass legislation that will improve economic security for children and families – particularly those who have been most impacted by structural racism and continue to have the lowest wages. A big tent that included families, workers, advocates, and businesses helped seal the deal on a permanent – and refundable – state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and a higher minimum wage.

The Hawaiʻi state EITC, created in 2017 through the advocacy of HCAN and its partners, was scheduled to sunset this year. HB 2510 not only eliminates the sunset, but also makes the credit fully refundable. The bill also legislates a $2/hour increase in the $10.10 minimum wage later this year, followed by biennial increases to $18/hour by 2028. This makes Hawaiʻi the first state in the country with an $18/hour minimum wage law.

Courtesy of Raise Up Hawaiʻi: Governor Ige signing HB 2510.

HCAN and partners centered their campaign for the refundable EITC in tax equity and racial equity. Due to longstanding and ongoing structural racism, including colonialism by European and white Americans, dispossession of native lands, and big business consolidation in the hands of a few powerful interests, Native Hawaiians have among the lowest average wages and intergenerational wealth of the various populations on the islands. Pacific Islanders also face similar structural oppression. These two groups benefit disproportionately from the EITC. Deborah Zysman, Executive Director of HCAN, says that centering the work in racial equity was never in doubt. “It’s just what we do.” Hawaiʻi also has a regressive state and local tax system, which imposes the highest burden on the lowest-income workers.

Zysman also shared that clear messaging was key for getting people on board with a complex policy like the EITC. “With the public, we never used the term ‘EITC.’ We talked about ensuring that working families with children could keep more of the money they earned by getting more money back in their tax refund. Especially because of the recent federal Child Tax Credit payments, people got that.”

HCAN co-facilitates both the Hawaiʻi Tax Fairness Coalition, which worked on the EITC effort, and Raise Up Hawaiʻi, which was created to fight for a living wage. It was a two-pronged approach, even while membership of the two coalitions overlapped. Core groups of partners did the heavy lifting and lobbying, while the larger, looser coalitions supported. Creating a big tent in order to add in more business voices, direct service providers, and the United Way – some of whom had previously hesitated to be vocal on raising the minimum wage but could support the EITC – was an important step for success.

Most households in Hawaiʻi struggle to afford basic needs, and HCAN felt it was important to include the voices of those parents and workers struggling to make ends meet. Zysman says that, like for many Alliance allies, this is an area HCAN is still working on.

“We had parents doing media interviews and legislative testimony, and workers doing a press event, but we’d like to do more. We are trying to build more depth and capacity, because it’s a huge amount of work.”

Deborah Zysman, Executive Director
Hawaiʻi Children’s Action Network

And like in any exciting legislative tale, there had to be a last-minute snafu. The EITC proposal – which HCAN had been told was a slam-dunk – was suddenly on the chopping block during the last two weeks of session. Despite a Democratic supermajority in both legislative chambers, HCAN found itself up against conservative messaging that the two proposals together were “too much” for children and families and that the minimum wage increases would hurt small businesses and raise prices. Thanks in part to their Alliance grant, HCAN was able to chip in funds with other partners to do nearly 67,000 paid phone banking calls, targeting 13 lawmakers in leadership and the conference committee, which, along with another media push, helped get the bill passed. They also got help from an unexpected corner – Hawaiʻi’s one Republican Senator spoke up in favor. His work as a school custodian and his sister’s experience as a waitress put him squarely on the side of the working-class family.

HB 2510 was signed into law by Governor Ige on June 22.