State senators and representatives convened the 2015 legislative session in their respective chambers Wednesday morning as groups advocating for Native Hawaiian rights and restrictions against genetically modified organisms protested in the Capitol rotunda outside.

Hundreds of people packed the galleries to watch. There were family and friends of lawmakers, lobbyists, dignitaries, county council members from around Hawaii, special interest groups and young students.

In his opening remarks, House Speaker Joe Souki recognized comments newly elected Gov. David Ige made in his inaugural address last month about the importance of collaboration.

Sheriffs stand in the Rotunda of the Capitol Building at 830am before the opening of the 2015 legislature.  21 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Officers stand in the rotunda of the Capitol Building on Wednesday morning before the opening of the 2015 legislative session.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“However, coming together is no easy task, especially when issues can be so divisive,” Souki said.

He highlighted successes from last session, including fixing the Hawaii Community Development Authority, increasing the minimum wage and tackling the state’s unfunded liabilities.

Looking ahead to this 60-day session, Souki said the Legislature must address affordable health care, public hospitals, medical marijuana, education, energy, transit-oriented development, agriculture and safety.

Oahu Community Correctional Center is an “outdated and misplaced facility,” he said, that needs to be reassessed.

“There is thought that we can lease the land under which it sits and use the money to expand and upgrade the Halawa facility,” Souki said. “We should investigate that option.”

Souki called on his colleagues to address the issue of GMOs this session.

“This issue will not go away and will require the same bold action that I asked from you earlier,” he said. “Leaving it to the courts will not resolve the stalemate that has paralyzed us on this issue.”

Souki said the discussion should not be about permitting and banning GMOs, but how to facilitate choice and an open market “allowing us to individually decide whether we want to consume GMO products or not.”

He did not offer any clues as to what his preference is when it comes to Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s request for the Legislature to extend indefinitely the 0.5 percent surcharge on the general excise tax that the county levies to pay for the rail project.

Souki said transient-oriented development is a term people should get used to hearing, though, and he believes the commercial growth around rail stations will be beneficial.

“Ensuring that rail is built on time and on budget will be key to helping us do all of this,” he said. “And so, we will be holding the city’s feet to the fire and closely scrutinizing its request to extend the GET tax for rail.”

On the education front, Souki said lawmakers should explore allowing all 5-year-olds to enter kindergarten, regardless of what month they were born. Last session, the Legislature made kindergarten mandatory for all kids who turn 5 by July 31.

Souki urged his colleagues to remedy a “contradiction” that has existed for 15 years in Hawaii, that being the legalization of medical marijuana but the inability to legally access the drug.

Majority Leader Scott Saiki said in his prepared remarks that the role of the House Democratic Caucus this year is “to be a check on the system, as well as a constructive problem solver.” Democrats dominate the 51-member House, which has just seven Republicans.

Rep. Aaron Ling Johanson was the latest to switch parties, leaving the GOP in December less than two months after winning election. His new seat in the House chamber is now on the opposite side of the floor.

Rep. Beth Fukumoto, the new House Minority Party leader, called on Souki to continue to listen to Republicans, whom he relied on to regain the speakership position in 2013.

“Many of the minority’s priorities are consistent with both yours and the governor’s,” she said in her prepared remarks. “Instead of creating new programs, we see a need for this body to focus on strengthening our existing programs, addressing our state’s hospitals and health care needs, tackling our high cost of living, and increasing transparency and openness in government.”

Fukumoto, who noted she is the first minority leader from the millennial generation, said jobs are what matter most. She said the Legislature talks a lot about diversifying the economy and creating jobs, but in reality does little to do so.

She said it’s important, looking forward, to recognize the value of Republican voices in crafting legislation and the balance it provides.

“If you allow that diversity, if you encourage it, if you value it, then this body will make stronger legislation that can make people’s lives better in real, tangible ways,” Fukumoto said. “Only then will we have a true democracy and a reason for the people of our state and the people of my generation to have faith in their government and a reason to believe that their voice, even if it’s in the minority, can make a difference.”

Saiki underscored in his speech the importance of public involvement at the Legislature.

Check out Civil Beat’s new guide to participating in the lawmaking process here. And read the full text of the speeches below:

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