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Big Isle legislators talk priorities


From living off the land to exploring space, from shielding constituents from eyes in the sky to legalizing Granny’s banana bread, Hawaii Island’s delegation of state representatives and senators is gearing up to present a host of new ideas — as well as time-worn ones yet to be fulfilled — to their legislative colleagues starting next week.

The state Legislature convenes the 2014 regular session 10 a.m. Wednesday, a 60-day event spread over almost four months, to set new policies and spending priorities. As the second half of a two-year session, this year’s opening session will dispense with most of the hoopla associated with the first year.

The second half of the biennium also gives a second chance to bills that didn’t quite make it the first go-round. There’s always new measures to consider as well.

Stephens Media Hawaii last week contacted island senators and representatives to get their top priorities. In alphabetical order, they are:

Rep. Cindy Evans, a Democrat representing North Kona and North and South Kohala, said the Hawaii Island House members met Thursday to discuss legislative priorities. The delegation agreed to support three major projects as a united group, in addition to having their own priorities for their respective districts, Evans said.

Those priorities are $81 million for a new Kona courthouse, $33 million for a pharmacy school building for the University of Hawaii at Hilo and $2.8 million for a primary care physician training program at Hilo Medical Center.

“Collectively, we all understand their importance and we should all fight for them,” Evans said.

With Hawaii Island having just seven representatives of the 51 and three senators of the 25, it’s important to help each other to see the island is treated fairly, Evans said. With Oahu lawmakers making up the bulk of the Legislature, and Maui residents having key leadership positions, it’s important the Big Island doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.

“We’ve got to get our fair share,” Evans said. “It’s important that the delegation really works together to get heard.”

As far as her own priorities for her district, Evans named upgrades to Waimea Middle School, especially a new nine-classroom science and technology building to support a science, technology, engineering and mathematics curriculum. Evans anticipated the building will cost between $7 million and $9 million.

Working to fix and upgrade Kawaihae Harbor, money for Kona International Airport and Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawaii Authority, and seeing that the Hawaii Community College at Palamanui campus stays on track are among a long list of priorities that also includes making sure construction continues on Queen Kaahumanu Highway and Saddle Road.

The Kona Judiciary Complex is the top funding priority for Sen. Josh Green, a Democrat representing Kona and Ka’u.

After receiving only $9 million of its $90 million request last year, the state Judiciary is expected to request another $81 million for the project in the coming cycle. The project, on a 10-acre parcel owned by Queen Liliuokalani Trust mauka of Makalapua Center, remains on schedule for a 2019 opening, pending funding.

As a physician and chairman of the Senate Health Committee, Green’s top legislative priority is continuing the Hospital Sustainability Program, and Nursing Facility Sustainability Program, two programs that leverage federal funding for the state Department of Human Services to make supplemental payments to hospitals and nursing facilities, offsetting a portion of their uncompensated care costs.

The programs bring in more than $45 million of federal funds annually to Hawaii health care facilities, Green said. Among the beneficiaries are Kona Community and North Hawaii Community hospitals, he said.

“This is a time when we need to sustain our health care safety net,” Green said. “It’s a critical priority.”

Green recounted the 2011 closing of Hawaii Medical Center on Oahu and said the state can ill afford to close hospitals.

“We can never afford to let that happen to our community,” Green said. “It’s important to note that the Hospital Sustainability Program keeps us from hospital closures.”

Sen. Gilbert Kahele, a Hilo Democrat, is looking at both sides of the island for priority projects during the 2014 legislative session. As chairman of the Senate Tourism Committee, Kahele is seeking a second gateway to the state and he thinks Kona International Airport is the perfect candidate.

Kahele also favors two projects at the University of Hawaii at Hilo: funding for the pharmacy school building and an international flight training center to be shared between UH-Hilo and Hawaii Community College. Lawmakers last year appropriated $100,000 to hire a program coordinator and a technical support staff member for an international flight training center and associated aeronautical training programs at the two institutions.

Invasive species, in particular the little fire ant, also is a top concern for Kahele. He said the stinging little ant, which climbs trees and is also on the ground, could harm tourism as it makes its way to island beaches such as Richardson’s Ocean Park in Keaukaha. It also threatens island nurseries and growers, and could become a $350 million annual problem in just a few years.

“It’s huge. It’s sending people to the hospital,” Kahele said. “If it ever got down to Waikiki …”

Rep. Nicole Lowen, a Democrat representing Kailua-Kona, Holualoa, Kalaoa and Honokohau, wants to focus on public access and greater transparency in the legislative process. She said she’s going to again push for public funding of candidates for legislative offices, as well as try to increase the use of video conferencing for neighbor island residents wanting to participate in legislative hearings.

A pilot program for public funding of Hawaii County Council seats was terminated after the program’s bank account dipped below the $3.5 million threshold set by state law. But Lowen and other lawmakers have been trying to get a state program in place for House members and possibly senators as well.

The bills, supported by Voter Owned Hawaii, did not make it through the session last year.

As far as funding priorities, Lowen said she’d focus on the Kona Judiciary Complex.

“It’s hard to pick just one,” Lowen said when asked about her top priority. “We’re getting ready to work hard.”

Rep. Richard Onishi, a Democrat representing Hilo, Keaau, Kurtistown and Volcano, is vice chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, and many of his legislative priorities center on agriculture. He wants to continue a feed subsidy program to help farmers and ranchers pay for livestock feed, which is expensive because so much of it must be shipped from the mainland.

“Much of that is passed on to the consumer,” Onishi said, explaining how the feed subsidy helps not only the farmers, but also the public.

Last year, the program got $2.5 million and Onishi is looking for at least that amount this year. In addition, he hopes $1 million will be available for a biodigester to convert food scraps from hotels and resorts into feed for livestock.

Agriculture quarantine inspectors and water issues, such as the Hamakua Ditch, round out Onishi’s agriculture priorities.

A rural physician training program is Onishi’s top funding priority. The partnership, between the Hilo hospital and Hawaii Health Systems Corp., aims to train 12 primary care residents, four in each year of the three-year program. It also seeks to train clinical pharmacists, advance practice nurses and psychologists specializing in rural health care concerns.

The program received $1.8 million of its requested $2.8 million last year, and Onishi hopes the full $2.8 million will be provided this year.

Sen. Russell Ruderman, a Democrat representing Puna and Ka’u, started a Local Food Caucus with other legislators, and his legislative priorities revolve around promoting food self-sufficiency. The package of 20 or 30 bills will be announced in a news conference in a week or two, he said.

Ruderman said working with large and small farmers and ranchers will help bring food prices down, as well as better shield the islands against calamities and shipping strikes. In addition, he said, just adding 10 percent to the locally grown food supply would save consumers $300 million a year, preserve open space and create jobs.

One measure in the package, dubbed the “Cottage Food Bill,” would loosen regulations for families and small farmers to make and sell low-risk food such as banana bread and cookies.

“It would legalize Granny’s banana bread, as long as Granny takes a food-safety course and agrees to maintain certain standards,” Ruderman said.

Other bills would allow raw milk and raw milk products such as yogurt and cheese and create distance-learning classes so far-flung small farmers wouldn’t have to make the trek to a university to take courses improving the industry.

Ruderman’s top funding priority is a regional library for Puna. As the state’s fastest-growing district, Puna needs a regional library rather than sharing library space with schools or forcing patrons to make the 45-minute journey to Hilo for books and library services, he said.

Ruderman expects the library to be a five- to 10-year process, but he wants to get started this year.

Rep. Clift Tsuji, a Democrat representing Keaukaha and parts of Hilo, Panaewa and Waiakea, chairs the House Committee on Economic Development and Business. As such, he’s looking closely at initiatives favored by the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

Tsuji has his eyes to the sky, with proposed legislation governing the likely use of unmanned aerial vehicle systems — also known as drones — in the state and possibly on the Big Island. His legislation would work with the public, perhaps through a task force, to set the degree of privacy-protection devices that should be installed in the systems.

“It’s better to be in the forefront and get the community’s input rather than become reactionary,” Tsuji said.

One other priority is getting land in Hilo and start-up funding for PISCES, the Pacific International Space Center for Exploration Systems, a project of the Japan-U.S. Science, Technology and Space Applications Program and UH-Hilo Department of Physics and Astronomy. The program will concentrate on sending robotic and human missions into space.

Tsuji’s also continuing his support for UH-Hilo’s pharmacy school building, and said there’s a much better chance of the Legislature seeing fit to fund it now that the cost was almost halved with a new design.

Tsuji noted the school is the top construction priority of the Board of Regents. He said fellow legislators still have questions about whether the funding model is a “palatable portfolio,” and whether the school would be better located in Honolulu alongside the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine and the UH Cancer Center. He thinks those questions can be overcome.

“We will work very closely with university officials,” Tsuji said. “I approach this legislative session with a high degree of optimism in funding the pharmacy school facility.”

Rep. Faye Hanohano, D-Puna, and Sen. Malama Solomon, D-Hilo, Hamakua, Kohala, Waimea, Waikoloa, Kona, chose to respond via email rather than be interviewed by Stephens Media Hawaii.

Hanohano wants to see changes in public school curricula to provide alternatives to college prep courses for those students choosing another route.

“If people want college degrees that is fine, but we need to find more options for people in high school looking for jobs in skilled trades like plumbing, auto mechanics, life guarding or hairdressing. All of which are decent paying jobs,” she said in a statement.

A new Highway 130 bypass road, Pahoa High School gym, Kulani Youth Correctional Facility, Kona Judiciary building and UH-Hilo pharmacy building round out Hanohano’s funding priorities.

Solomon wants to try again to transfer the Mauna Kea state recreation area and Hapuna Beach Park to Hawaii County, according to a PowerPoint presentation shared by her office.

And she wants the state Department of Land and Natural Resources to fence state parks. Solomon is also seeking regulations for zip lines.

Water conservation measures, workplace wellness programs and raising the procurement ceiling complete her list.

Rep. Richard Creagan, a Democrat representing Kailua-Kona, Kealakekua, Captain Cook, Ocean View and Naalehu, was appointed Friday to the seat formerly occupied by Denny Coffman, and couldn’t be reached for comment for this article.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

 

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