At the opening of the Hawaii State Legislature on Wedneday, anti-GMO activists will join forces with Hawaiian rights leaders in the Capitol to rally for Native Hawaiian independence and a ban on genetically modified crops.
House Majority Leader Scott Saiki says despite such demonstrations, he predicts this year’s session will be calm — a far cry from the wildly emotional roller coaster ride of years past when lawmakers battled over and finally legalized same-sex marriages.
Saiki says this year will be a time to buckle down to tackle longstanding financial problems that threaten to drain the state dry.
Key problems include finding a way to stem the money bleed from the state’s public hospital system, a group of 13 public hospitals, which says it needs $267 million to stay afloat over the next two years.
In the past, the Hawaii Government Employees Association and the United Public Workers, the unions representing state hospital workers, have successfully blocked legislative attempts to save money by privatizing some public hospitals.
But this year, lawmakers say they have to look seriously at privatization, including a proposal for a private-public partnership between Hawaii Pacific Health and three Maui state hospitals.
House Majority Leader Saiki says, “The hospitals’ financial situation is very dire. All the interested parties know something has to be done. We expect some level of cooperation at this point from everyone including the unions.”
Other pressing money problems include generating enough money to begin to dismantle the deteriorating Oahu Community Correctional Center and rebuild it in a new location. The nearly 100-year-old Oahu prison sits smack in the middle of extremely valuable development land for rail transit. Plus, it’s overcrowded and poorly designed, making it easy for prisoners to break out with multiple escapes each year.
Lawmakers are talking about sites in Halawa Valley to build the new facility.
“At least, if the jail were built in the valley near Halawa Prison, there wouldn’t be as many not in my backyard, NIMBY issues,” says Senate Public Safety Chairman Will Espero.
Lawmakers also will have to rein in the University of Hawaii and redirect its continuing pleas for financial bailouts; the latest in a series of jaw droppers is UH President David Lassner’s alarming news that the UH Cancer Center is going to run out of money in two years.
“The university keeps coming back to us for more money. At some point, the Legislature is going to say no,” says Saiki.
Republican Sen. Sam Slom says he’s ready to say no right now.
“I say if the Cancer Center lacks a viable business plan, why continue to throw good money after bad,” says Slom.
On the topic of taxes, House Speaker Joe Souki says nobody this year wants to impose any new taxes. Souki often euphemistically calls taxes “revenue enhancers.”
“Everybody is afraid of raising taxes. I don’t think anybody wants to raise taxes, “ says Souki.
But the city’s push for the Legislature to allow the 12.5 percent rail transit surcharge to continue indefinitely has to be considered a tax hike.
Hawaii taxpayers were promised the rail tax increase would end in 2022.
The Tax Foundation of Hawaii estimates the rail tax surcharge costs each person on Oahu an extra $200 each year. If the surcharge is allowed to continue indefinitely, residents will be paying more taxes than the originally expected, and that’s a tax increase.
Rep. Scott Saiki says former Gov. Neil Abercrombie hardly ever left his office in the four years he was governor to meet with lawmakers, but Gov. David Ige has already gotten together with them several times.
Potentially controversial non-money issues this year will be requests for the legalization of marijuana and bills to outlaw genetically modified crops.
State Sen. Laura Thielen, who grows fruit commercially on her Windward Oahu property, expects to see the most traction for measures calling for buffer zones to protect residents and schools from farm crop pesticides — but she expects little support for more sweeping and divisive proposals such as mandatory GMO labeling or an outright GMO ban.
House Speaker Souki says when it comes to marijuana, he expects the Legislature to focus this session on finally passing a bill to set up dispensaries to distribute medical marijuana to qualified recipients.
“We have been trying to get dispensaries set up for more than 13 years. It is time to get it done,” says Souki.
Souki does not see widespread support for either decriminalizing marijuana or making it legal.
Environmentalists and consumer advocates will stir things up this year when they urge lawmakers to make the Public Utilities Commission move very cautiously before approving NextEra Energy’s proposed acquisition of Hawaiian Electric Industries.
Last week, 12 clean energy groups filed two petitions to urge the PUC to halt NextEra’s purchase of Hawaiian Electric Industries until the state has a clear plan for its energy needs.
Another controversial proposal that will surface but is expected to be dead on arrival is GOP Sen. Sam Slom’s bill to allow registered gun owners in the state to get permits to carry concealed weapons. Slom says the current law limits peoples’ ability to protect themselves.
Most interesting this session will be watching former state Sen. David Ige interact with the lawmakers for the first time as governor.
Saiki says former Gov. Neil Abercrombie hardly ever left his office in the four years he was governor to meet with lawmakers, but Ige has already gotten together with them several times.
Saiki says he expects interesting times ahead because Ige has the guts to face unpopular issues.
As an example, he says he admires the way Ige ended the longstanding practice of Hawaii governors giving state workers a half day off on Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve. Ige has said doing away with that holiday tradition will save the state $11 million dollars.
Ige says that state employees have enough vacation time already — 21 working days a year — and if they want an extra holiday on Christmas or New Year’s Eve, they can use one of their own vacation days.
Mayor Kirk Caldwell still gives the extra half day Christmas Eve-New Year’s Eve holiday to Honolulu city workers, and the Legislature offers the half day off to its permanent staffers and also an extra half-day holiday the day after Thanksgiving.
“We are very generous with the taxpayers’ money,” says Slom.
Saiki says he doesn’t expect all the state’s financial problems to be fixed this session, but he says, “at least we can create a framework to begin to resolve things.”
And maybe, with the admitted need to save money and resolve long-standing problems, lawmakers this year might adopt Ige’s small but courageous budgetary step of refusing to give their legislative staffers extra time off at taxpayer expense on the day after Thanksgiving, and on the days before Christmas and New Year’s.