HILO — Relief for Puna, cesspool conversion and more neighbor island participation in state government are among an inventory of priorities for five Hawaii Island legislators who briefed the Hawaii Island Chamber of Commerce at a breakfast meeting Wednesday.
With the Jan. 16 start of the regular legislative session just a month away, state lawmakers say Gov. David Ige’s conservative revenue outlook and a new spending approach by the House could alter how programs and projects are funded. The House is embarking on a zero-based budgeting approach that would require each agency to justify their budgets from scratch, rather than justifying only the increases.
Rep. Mark Nakashima, D-Waimea, said most programs and agencies were created almost 60 years ago at statehood.
“Nobody has gone back to look at these programs and whether they’re still doing what we want them to do,” Nakashima said. “On the House side, we’re looking at being more proactive, making government more efficient.”
But Big Island lawmakers remain optimistic that money can be found for a comprehensive lava relief package for Puna, the completion of the Kona courthouse, the extension of Saddle Road, more control over invasive species and a non-potable water system for North Kohala agriculture, among other items on the legislative wish list.
Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-Puna, Ka‘u, said he hopes an initiative to allow testimony and committee meeting participation by videoconferencing also advanced by Rep. Nicole Lowen, D-Kona, will find traction this session. It’s costly and time-consuming for neighbor island constituents to participate in their government, he said.
“Every year I try to advance the idea of video conferencing and video testimony at the state level,” Ruderman said, noting that it works well at the county level for County Council meetings.
“It really makes people on the neighbor islands second-class citizens from the point of view of the state Legislature,” he added. “There’s no technical reason we can’t do it; there’s only political reasons we can’t do it. I occasionally suspect that they don’t really want to hear from us.”
Like Ruderman, Rep. David Tarnas, D-North Kona, Kohala, also sees support of the county’s relief package for Puna as important.
“We really do need to make the Puna relief package a priority,” Tarnas said. “We’re one island. We really have to work together.”
Conversion of cesspools is another Tarnas priority. He said it’s not just an environmental issue but also an economic one, as people will have difficulty getting mortgages and financial institutions will have difficulty selling mortgages of homes that are still using cesspools. Tarnas wants the state to set an example by hooking Honokohau Harbor to the adjacent sewer plant.
Education is a priority for Ige this year, and it’s a priority for Rep. Chris Todd, D-Keaukaha, Hilo, Panaewa, as well. He’s looking particularly at charter schools, and how best to provide the different support each school needs.
“East Hawaii has the highest concentration of charter schools in the state,” he said.
Sen. Lorraine Inouye, a Democrat whose district stretches across the northern part of the island from Hilo to Kona, has a long list of priorities, but said her top issues are pushing for an airport authority, a tax credit for energy battery storage and an agricultural water system for North Kohala. Inouye said the old Kohala ditch is in such poor shape it doesn’t make sense to pour more money into it.
The approximately 30 chamber members and guests in the audience were concerned about any added costs to doing business in the state, such as the minimum wage. The minimum wage was raised from $8.50 an hour in 2015 in annual increments, ending with the last rise to $10.10 an hour on Jan. 1.
Nakashima isn’t ready to support any more raises anytime soon.
“My concern is, if we just keep increasing the minimum wage, all we’re doing is raising the cost of living,” he said.