The House Finance Committee on Wednesday trimmed $35 million from Gov. David Ige’s proposed $7.4 billion state spending plan for next fiscal year, which begins July 1.

But Chair Sylvia Luke cautioned that the exact amount of the spending decrease could change as the committee addresses issues like housing and homelessness in individual bills working their way through the Legislature.

The committee’s cuts create a balanced budget over the course of the state’s six-year financial plan, Luke said.

Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke broke down the changes that lawmakers made to the governor’s proposed $7 billion state budget Wednesday. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

The governor’s proposal would have left the state with a $100 million carryover balance by 2021 and a negative balance of $95 million by 2022, she said. The amended budget leaves $249 million as a surplus in 2021 and a positive balance of $108 million for 2022.

“It’s a tight margin,” Luke said.

The committee nixed the administration’s $2.5 million request for the Attorney General’s office to spend on a state law enforcement coalition to cover costs for items such as sheriffs’ overtime.

Luke said committee members were concerned about the office using the money in response to activist movements like the protest at Mauna Kea over the Thirty Meter Telescope project. Instead, she said it would be better for the department to just come back to the Legislature for funding as needed.

A request for $1 million for heat abatement at schools was also cut because the Legislature provided $100 million last year and lawmakers were unclear what the extra funds were specifically needed for, Luke said.

The biggest reduction was for Maui Health Systems. Luke, who voted in favor of the bill in 2015 that authorized the privatization of the state hospitals there, said the Ige administration had requested $32 million but did not provide sufficient explanation to justify it.

Rep Kyle Yamashita during floor session. 13 march 2017
Rep. Kyle Yamashita has the lead this year on the $4 billion capital improvement projects budget. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2017

“This is an example in why privatization does not result in cutting costs,” she said, adding that the Legislature approved $28 million for Maui Health Systems last year. “This kind of discourages future discussion about privatization of hospitals.”

The Finance Committee also took a closer look at the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility, which Luke said has been a “continuous struggle.”

Fifteen years ago, she said, the facility housed 120 youths. Now, it houses 20 — three girls and 17 boys, as of January. But the facility still has 117 staff positions, with 73 guards who racked up $667,000 in overtime.

Luke said the committee decided to convert more guard positions into social worker and counseling jobs, calling the guards part of an “antiquated” model of reform.

The Finance Committee, which includes 15 House members, also found $10.7 million in budget savings by eliminating 203 positions that had been vacant for 18 months or longer.

The capital improvement projects budget, which Ige proposed beefing up by $1.5 billion next year, stayed relatively intact. Rep. Kyle Yamashita, who had the lead on the CIP plan, said the total amount for the biennium was $4.48 billion.

Among the changes that the Finance Committee approved was $39.3 million for the Women’s Community Correctional Center.

Yamashita said that would “buy us time” and take care of some of the overcrowding problems at Oahu Community Correctional Center instead of putting additional funding into building other jails as Ige sought.

Laurel Johnston, acting budget director, declined to comment on the House draft of the budget until her office received a final version of the bill.

OIP Speaks Up

Department heads and a handful of interested nonprofits, such as The Nature Conservancy, packed the conference room at the Capitol for the hourlong hearing.

They traditionally just stand on their written testimony and make sure they’re available for any questions.

That held true again this year, except for the head of one state agency. Office of Information Practices Director Cheryl Kakazu Park wanted to go over her additional budget request — $115,000 to make staff salaries more competitive.

Office of Information Practices Director Cheryl Kakazu Park was the only agency head to go over her budget request Wednesday. Other department heads just stood on their written testimony. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

It’s a paltry sum in the overall financial plan but she has been under pressure lately from media outlets, a nonprofit public interest law firm and state lawmakers to address a backlog of cases and respond faster to requests for legal opinions on matters concerning access to public documents and public meetings.

Park said she has lost several attorneys to other state agencies that pay better. Boosting salaries — OIP attorneys earn about $83,000 a year and she earns $117,000 — will help her retain staff and preserve institutional knowledge, she said.

The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest, headed by attorney Brian Black, criticized OIP in a report last month that found the office takes two to three years on average to resolve public complaints about lack of information from government agencies.

Senate Bill 3092, which was introduced by Sen. Les Ihara and 17 of his colleagues in the 25-member chamber, would have required OIP to resolve public complaints within six months.

It cleared the Government Operations Committee, chaired by Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, but died last month when Judiciary Committee Chair Brian Taniguchi refused to hear it.

Park brought charts Wednesday to the Finance Committee hearing that underscored how her office has to do double the work with half the staff it had years ago. The charts also showed that OIP has fewer resources than other good-government offices, such as the state auditor, ombudsman and ethics office.

“OIP is reaching its tipping point,” Park said. “We’ve pretty much maxed out.”

Her testimony, along with the rest of the requests made by the administration, nonprofits and individual citizens, is below.

The overall state budget bill, House Bill 1900, goes to a vote by the full House next before crossing over to the Senate for its consideration. The Senate Ways and Means Committee, chaired by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, will have the lead on it there.

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