State budget negotiators on Tuesday passed a $23.8 billion biennium budget three days ahead of their internal deadline, but they were unable to agree on how much money to put toward economic growth and early education initiatives.

House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke and Senate Ways and Means Chair David Ige, who together led the budget talks over the past two weeks in conference committee, said they will let the chairs of the committees in charge of those bills determine the final details later this week.

“We are planning to fund bills in some way, shape or form,” Ige said after the packed evening meeting at the Capitol. “We wanted to be careful not to blow up the budget.”

The committee chairs who still have bills with blank appropriation lines will be competing for a slice of a $30 million pie that Ige and Luke said they have set aside in the six-year state financial plan. They recognize it’s not enough to fund all the requests for programs and positions, but point at the increasing cost of non-discretionary items such as Medicaid, health benefits and new union agreements.

“There have been a number of collective bargaining settlements that we are still getting the final details on,” Ige said. “All of those things have to be incorporated into the financial plan before we can arrive at an amount of funds that are available for bills.”

Luke added: “Just because the economy is improving doesn’t mean we’re going to fully fund whatever request is made.”

Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s top legislative priority this session is establishing an early education program for the state’s 18,000 4-year-olds. He asked the Legislature to approve $32.5 million to get the program off the ground by providing preschool for 3,500 kids who won’t be able to enroll in kindergarten next year because the pre-K program was eliminated.

Lawmakers are hesitantly moving forward on the initiative, which could eventually cost the state an estimated $125 million annually when it opens up to all students.

Sen. Jill Tokuda said earlier Tuesday that she isn’t taking anything for granted, but sees positive signs with lawmakers approving $700,000 for the Executive Office on Early Learning and passing a bill to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot for voters to decide if public money can be used for private preschools.

But two critical bills to implement the early education and school readiness programs are still pending. Senate bills 1093 and 1095 will be heard in conference committee Thursday afternoon.

A similarly uncertain fate awaits the HI Growth Initiative, a proposal to invest in an “entrepreneurial ecosystem” that creates more high-paying jobs. House Bill 858 is up for decision-making in conference committee Thursday afternoon.

Budget Blueprint

Ige said the budget committee focused on process as much as product this session.

“We were committed to establish a blueprint about how the state budget should be constructed,” he said. “We wanted to focus on doing the people’s business and putting that ahead of politics.”

Unlike past budget committee sessions that stretched late into the night, the hearings wrapped up within a couple hours of their start times this year. The House is under new leadership with former Speaker Calvin Say losing his leadership position to Joe Souki and Luke replacing former Finance Chair Marcus Oshiro.

“I’m happy to report that there were no hostages taken in the budget,” Ige said. “We were focused on providing appropriate funds in the manner that would restore critical state functions and then make strategic investments.”

Budget Highlights

The conference committee made several key policy decisions in passing the budget bill, House Bill 200. The final conference version came in more than $250 million under the governor’s proposal.

Here’s a quick recap of the highlights from the six conference hearings on the budget:

The final budget is set to be approved early next week before the legislative session ends May 2.

Click here for more details on the budget and a list of highlights from the capital improvement projects budget and grants-in-aid that were approved.

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