- Special Projects
Senators have carved out nearly $160 million to rebuild the Hawaii State Hospital, $5 million to bail out Wahiawa General Hospital and $23.5 million to fund the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands in 2017.
These were just a few of the major budget decisions that the Ways and Means Committee announced Tuesday. The 11-member panel, chaired by Sen. Jill Tokuda, approved a Senate draft of the overall state budget bill that is roughly $215 million less than Gov. David Ige’s initial submittal in December.
The Senate version is $13.5 billion for fiscal 2017, which starts July 1. The House version, approved in March, was $13.7 billion, just slightly less than the governor’s proposal.
The governor’s budget proposed spending $488 million more than the state is expected to take in next year. The House version trimmed that discrepancy slightly. The Senate draft almost cut it in half, but is still dependent on an $828 million carryover balance from 2015 to make it balance.
House and Senate negotiators will work this month to reach a compromise on the final spending plan for the state before the legislative session ends May 5.
One of the Department of Health’s top priorities is funding for a new patient care facility at the Hawaii State Hospital in Kaneohe, which is in Tokuda’s district. Ige’s proposed spending plan had included the $160.5 million to do the design and construction, but the House cut out the funding from the budget draft it sent the Senate last month.
State Health Director Dr. Ginny Presser said the money is crucial to keep the project moving quickly and avoid delays. To demonstrate the progress, she brought the sign from the Goddard Building that’s being demolished to make room for the new facility.
The hospital is chronically overcrowded with court-ordered patients. Pressler has said a new state-of-the-art forensic facility will not just open up space and improve care, but the design will have improved lines of site to help eliminate the violence that has been occurring involving patients and staff members.
Senators also took action to help a different hospital.
In what Tokuda called a “very creative solution,” Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz explained his plan for the state to buy two parking lots from Wahiawa General Hospital, where he was born, and then lease them back at a nominal rate.
“That would allow some cash infusion,” he said.
The hospital, which serves a rural area in central and north Oahu, is in danger of going under. Doctors, patients and residents wore white “Save Our Hospital” shirts to the Senate hearing and have been rallying since last month to put pressure on lawmakers to help.
Rep. Marcus Oshiro, whose district includes Wahiawa, has pushed forward a House resolution calling on the governor and Legislature to act. The former House Finance Committee chair told Tokuda he knows what it’s like to be in her seat.
“I ask, I plead, I beg for assistance,” he said.
Senators put $5 million in the budget bill to cover the purchase of the parking lots. The lots would first need to be appraised, but are valued at just over $3 million.
House Bill 1700, the overall state budget bill, will be the vehicle to fund the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands, Tokuda said. Lawmakers had been moving forward a separate bill to fund DHHL.
Senators approved all the money Ige requested Monday to reimburse the department for its shortfall this fiscal year as well as money for next year.
The governor has asked state lawmakers for $17.1 million to cover DHHL’s operating budget and administrative expenses for fiscal 2016, which ends June 30, and $23.5 million for fiscal 2017.
It’s the most the state has ever provided the historically underfunded agency, but it’s still short of the $28 million that the department — and a judge — have said is needed. The state had budgeted $9.6 million for each of those years.
First Circuit Judge Jeannette Castagnetti ruled in November in the Nelson v. Hawaiian Homes Commission case that the state must fulfill its constitutional duty to make “sufficient” sums available to the department for its administrative and operating budget.
The department helps Native Hawaiians acquire homestead lands. The waiting list is now 27,700 people long. It was 5,700 when the mandate was enacted in 1978.
Tokuda said it’s crucial to not lose focus on what’s most important, the beneficiaries, and to “attack the list.”
“Sometimes we get lost quibbling over the dollar amounts,” she said.
Jobie Masagatani, DHHL director and chair of the Hawaiian Homes Commission, said in her testimony on the budget bill Tuesday that the department is continuing to request $28.5 million for 2017.
The Senate version of the budget has a different philosophical approach than the House draft in at least one key respect. The Senate seems more focused on fixing things now, willing to come up with the necessary money by delaying a long-term strategy to get the state on better financial footing.
Absent in the Senate draft are two of the administration’s priorities: $100 million to boost the state’s rainy day fund and $163 million to more aggressively pay down the state’s $8.5 billion unfunded liability for health benefits promised to public workers.
Tokuda said those items may still get funded, at least partially, through separate bills. The House had included the full amounts. Ige has said bigger budget reserves can improve the state’s bond rating, letting it borrow money for projects at cheaper rates. And paying more money now to eliminate unfunded liabilities sooner offers the prospect of more funding in the future.
Before taking up the budget bill, the Ways and Means Committee passed a measure that appropriates $37 million for the state highway fund.
Noting that the House killed a bill the Senate passed to raise taxes on motor vehicles and fuel, she said she had to look at other ways to get the Department of Transportation money believed to be necessary for emergency roadwork and other projects.
The Ways and Means Committee appropriated $7.3 million in the state budget for homeless programs. That includes $3 million for the Housing First program, $1.1 million for homeless outreach services, $2 million for rapid re-housing services, $450,000 for a new homeless shelter in Kakaako and $200,000 for a stored property program.
The committee also budgeted 36 positions and $2.7 million for a pilot program to repair vacant public housing units, and 29 positions and $1.1 million for the Hawaii Public Housing Authority to issue more housing vouchers and secure more federal money.
When it comes to capital improvement projects related to housing, the Senate draft of the budget includes $50 million for the Rental Housing Trust Fund, $35 million for the Hawaii Public Housing Authority and $33 million for the Dwelling Unit Revolving Fund.
An additional $59.6 million in revolving funds was provided for shovel-ready housing projects statewide, which will provide for the renovation of 850 current units and the creation of an additional 1,600 units, according to a Senate press release.
Those aren’t the only buildings that senators want to fix up.
The University of Hawaii has a huge backlog of deferred maintenance projects. The Senate draft provides all the funding that UH sought, including $224.9 million in general obligation bonds, $113 million in revenue bonds, and $5.75 million in special funds. UH was also granted revenue bond authority.
Senators also provided $3 million of the $4 million that the UH Cancer Center had sought. Tokuda said the university should come up with the other $1 million to give it “some skin in the game.”
“The Senate draft of the supplemental budget balances priority needs with existing resources, ensuring programs and services can be maintained over time,” Tokuda said. “Our committee once again identified ways to encourage efficiencies and better utilize base appropriations to do more with less, without unsustainably adding to our budget.”