Legislative talk story: Lowen, Kanuha talk with constituents about 2021 session

  • Passengers move through the TSA checkpoint at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport in November. The state Legislature approved $18 million for various facility renovations at the site. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)

  • Dru Kanuha

  • Nicole Lowen

  • Mainland-bound passengers pass luggage through agricultural inspection at Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport in November. The state Legislature approved $18 million for various facility renovations at the site. (Laura Ruminski/West Hawaii Today file photo)

At a Tuesday evening virtual talk story, West Hawaii’s representation in the state Legislature shared some highlights from the 2021 legislative session.

Sen. Dru Kanuha (D-Kona, Ka’u) joined Rep. Nicole Lowen (D-North Kona) on Zoom alongside constituents for the hour-long meeting.

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Kanuha, recently appointed as the Senate’s majority leader, opened the talk story by touting the approximately $40 million secured for capital improvement projects in West Hawaii.

A combined $14.5 million was designated in the next two fiscal years for improvements to the Hawaii Health Systems Corporation facilities on the Big Island, including at Kona Community Hospital. Projects included improvements for Ho’okena and Kahakai Elementary schools as well as at Kealakehe Intermediate School, and additional funding was earmarked for projects at Honokohau Harbor, Hulihe‘e Palace and Ellison Onizuka Kona International Airport at Keahole.

“Being on the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, our committee worked to identify infrastructure projects — that will help the state’s economy recover from the pandemic that we’ve been dealing with for over a year now — through construction activity, while simultaneously providing essential opportunities for employment,” Kanuha said. “The type of CIPs that were included in this were renovations, repairs, major maintenance to existing state facilities, landscape improvements, new construction, land acquisition and utility modifications, just to name a few of what we decided to fund. Rep. Lowen and I were fortunate to secure approximately $40 million for the benefit of Kona.”

Kanuha also underscored the importance, fiscally speaking, of the state paying off the $700 million employment insurance loan borrowed from the federal government and passing the $31.17 billion General Appropriations Act – HB200 – for the upcoming two years.

Lowen, who chairs the House’s Energy and Environmental Protection Committee, highlighted strides made in economic diversification.

“House Bill 1176 creates a green jobs corps,” she said. “It takes $5 million that came down in some of the federal relief funds and allocates it toward a green job corps program that will help create paid internships in areas like conservation, agriculture, clean energy and other sustainability-related jobs. We think that’s a really good starting point.”

Examples of new sustainable tourism measures passed include House Bills 1019 and 1023 — among the nine bills signed by Gov. David Ige on World Oceans Day — establishing a $1 fee per person for passengers of ocean recreation vessels or businesses and requiring nonresidents to have a recreational fishing license when fishing. Funds raised from these measures will go toward funding reef conservation efforts.

“It’s that idea of making sure tourists are paying their fair share, to better manage tourism,” Lowen said.

Growing the agriculture sector of Hawaii’s economy was also a priority set forth by Lowen.

Measures touted by Lowen include Senate Bill 512 to remove the $10 cap for the state’s “Double Up Food Bucks” program matching SNAP benefits for purchasing local produce at a farmers market; House Bill 817 to establish a 50% goal for local food procurement across all state agencies by 2050; Senate Bill 336 to double the amount of money the Department of Agriculture can give to a farmer from $25,000 to $50,000; and House Bill 855 to extend the sunset date and add coffee leaf rust subsidies to the coffee berry borer subsidy program.

The question and answer portion of the talk story featured a range of questions, including how the Legislature plans to address teacher shortages, the possibility of a new hospital in West Hawaii, vaccine requirements in schools and criminal justice reform, among other topics.

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While both legislators were excited about the adoption of virtual testimony as a silver lining they hope remains from the pandemic, they each expressed hope expressed hope in-person talk stories would soon return as the state inches closer to normality.

A recording of the meeting will be available to watch at https://www.facebook.com/representativelowen.