By TOM CALLIS
Tribune-Herald staff writer
From food safety to expanding solar power, the Big Island’s state legislators are planning to tackle a wide range of issues during the next session in Honolulu.
The session begins Jan. 16, giving representatives about four months to advocate their agendas and forge compromises while trying to keep the state’s budget in check.
The island has 11 legislators this time around, one more than previous sessions thanks to the addition of a fourth Senate seat.
How much more strength this gives it remains to be seen, though a good committee assignment or two doesn’t hurt.
Freshman state Sen. Russell Ruderman will sit on four committees: Ways and Means, which deals with the budget; Education; Water and Land; and Energy and Environment, which he will vice chair.
“It’s like everything I wanted except agriculture,” he said.
Ruderman, D-Puna, said the assignments will work well with his legislative wish list, which includes forming a business incubator for farmers, making it easier for residents to add solar power to their homes, and money to build a new elementary school in Hawaiian Paradise Park.
He said he is also seeking to fund road improvements on Highway 130, and has met with state Department of Transportation officials on that issue.
His goal is to get as much done as possible.
“I think most legislators do nothing in their first year, that’s what’s expected,” Ruderman said. “And I really want to be an exception.”
Joining Ruderman on Ways and Means is Sen. Gil Kahele.
Kahele, a Democrat, was elected to the 1st District, representing Hilo, after being appointed to the seat in 2011.
He returns this year as majority whip.
Kahele said his No. 1 priority is securing funds to build a facility for the University of Hawaii at Hilo’s pharmacy school.
“It’s all been designed,” he said.
“I think that’s next step we have to do,” Kahele added, referring to allocating construction money.
“And hopefully I can accomplish that.”
Kahele is also the vice chair of the Hawaiian Affairs and Higher Education committees.
Agriculture is on Rep. Clift Tsuji’s agenda for next year.
Tsuji, who chair’s the Agriculture Committee, said he will introduce legislation mandating farmers receive a “food safety” certification and restoring funding for invasive species detection.
Food safety certifications show that farmers are using best practices to prevent food from being contaminated.
“Food safety is of up most importance,” he said.
Tsuji, D-Hilo, Puna, said the state offers a subsidized program for farmers choosing to get the certification; a mandatory program would also likely be subsidized, he said.
Brian Miyamoto, Hawaii Farm Bureau chief operating officer, said the organization is supportive of the certifications and encourages its members to get them.
“There are buyers out there, consumers out there that seem to require it,” he said.
But Miyamoto was unsure if it should be mandatory.
“I’m not sure I can answer that right now,” he said.
Tsuji also sits committees addressing consumer protection, business, international affairs, courts, and tourism.
State Sen. Malama Solomon was selected for the Water and Land Committee chair, making her the top legislator in that chamber on issues relating to natural resources.
“My focus is going to be on a lot of the initiatives that the department (Land and Natural Resources) is requesting,” she said in a voicemail.
Solomon said restoration of forest lands, water shed management, and hunting will all be issues that she wants to address.
A Democrat, she represents the Fourth District, covering the north end of the island from Hamakua to Kona.
Solomon also sits on the Commerce and Consumer Protection, Hawaiian Affairs, and Transportation and International Affairs committees.
State Sen. Josh Green, chairman of the Health Committee, said he’ll be focused on addressing childhood obesity and reauthorizing the hospital sustainability bill, which raised Medicaid payments.
“I will be fighting for resources for West Hawaii,” he added, including funds for a courthouse.
Freshman Rep. Richard Onishi said his goals will be to support sustainable agriculture and helping farmers, possibly through low-cost loans, grants or tax breaks.
“My goal really is to begin to work with the agriculture community to find out what their needs are and then put that into some sort of legislation if needed and programs that need to be developed,” said Onishi, D-Hilo, Keaau, Volcano.
The House hasn’t updated its committee assignments.
Rep. Denny Coffman, who was chair of the Energy and Environmental Protection Committee last session, said he will look to keep the renewable energy tax credit afloat.
“We just need to find a middle ground here so it keeps moving but we don’t give away money we don’t have,” he said.
Partially due to the cost of the credits, the state reduced its revenue projection for the next fiscal year from 5.3 percent growth to 4.9 percent.
Coffmann, D-Kona, Captain Cook, said he is also interested in pursuing an elementary school for Ocean View.
Freshman Rep. Nicole Lowen said she will also look for funding for a West Hawaii courthouse and seeking “energy independence.”
“I think the state is at a turning point” for energy, said Lowen, D-Kailua-Kona.
Reps. Faye Hanohano, Mark Nakashima and Cindy Evans couldn’t be reached for comment.
Email Tom Callis at firstname.lastname@example.org.