J.Kalani English

Maui County makes out pretty well in tight times

The Maui News
Friday, May 2, 2003

By MARK ADAMS
Staff Writer

HONOLULU - The state Legislature on Thursday ended a 2003 session dominated by a lack of money that forced lawmakers to make difficult choices.

But Maui County's legislative delegation said this week that considering the big picture in Hawaii and the world, the county came through OK.

There's funding for several big-ticket items for Maui County in the state spending package that the legislators are pleased were included. That includes $25 million for a new elementary school for Central Maui; improvements to several major state highways, including Honoapiilani Highway, Haleakala Highway and the planned Paia bypass road; money for a new long-term care facility Upcountry; and funding for an invasive-species inspection facility at Kahului Airport.

"Overall, I'm pretty satisfied," said Rep. Bob Nakasone, the veteran Democrat from Kahului.

The entire Maui delegation is being given credit for helping obtain funding for a helicopter air-ambulance and ground crew, which the state and county are both helping to finance and which will give residents in rural areas of the county a lifeline to medical help in an emergency.

There's $700,000 for the Hana Community Health Center; $750,000 for Molokai General Hospital; $75,000 for the Maui Aids Foundation; $90,000 for Hale Mahaolu; and a number of bills introduced by Sen. J. Kalani English that were supported by the Maui delegation.

English, who chaired the Senate's Energy and Environment Committee, said several important bills passed by that panel now await the governor's signature.

They focus on issues such as food waste recycling, habitat conservation, continuing tax credits for homes using solar energy, reducing carbon dioxide emissions from power plants and autos, and reducing the state's dependence on fossil fuels.

The senator said he is pleased that lawmakers approved a temporary Hawaii Invasive Species Council, which will see several departments coordinate efforts in battling introduced pests like the miconia plant and coqui frog.

A major disappointment for English, however, is that funding was not provided to keep the dengue-fighting Emergency Environmental Work Force operating to battle invasive species.

"The program will continue to exist, but it takes political will to fund it," English said. "This is shortsightedness that we will be paying for in the near future. As different types of diseases and invasive species come in, we won't have the team on the ground to deal with it. That's my major disappointment this session."

South Maui Rep. Chris Halford's major disappointment was the continuing failure of the Legislature to establish a comprehensive auditing plan for state finances.

"It's been the same over the last 40 years," Halford said. "We are supporting a management scheme at the department and program levels that is inefficient. Our budget is based on imagined numbers, and in some cases the real costs are obscured."

Halford was also upset that lawmakers have again refused to institute a tax credit for food and medical services.

Those factors made him decide to vote against the budget bill, Halford said, the only legislator who did as it passed 75-1.

There was good news, he said, with a bill passed that will require an audit of state finances and a new governor in office "who is proving to be very effective and constructive."

"So even though I voted against the most important bill in the Legislature, I am more optimistic than I have ever been about Hawaii's future," he said.

Both Halford and fellow Republican Rep. Brian Blundell said they are glad the Legislature voted to increase and stabilize funding for charter schools in Hawaii, which they said give control over education to local communities.

Blundell, who holds the West Maui House seat created by reapportionment, said he was also pleased at the emergency air-ambulance approval and at money allocated to plan a wider Honoapiilani Highway from Puamana to Maalaea. A passing lane is planned, with $1.5 million appropriated for design.

The freshman lawmaker did have some disappointments as well, including the failure of the Legislature to support locally elected school boards. The sharp division between the Democrat-controlled House and minority Republicans also concerned him.

"Being a little naive, I thought I could come over and build relationships with the majority party and work with them to get some of my bills through, but it just doesn't happen," he said. "It's so partisan and so unfair to the citizens of Hawaii."

Blundell said that part of his introduction to life at the State Capitol was "very frustrating," but it's also challenging to find ways around the situation.

"You learn really quick to figure out their strategy and see how people work," Blundell said, and with his first session under his belt he's already turning his attention to the next one.

"My experience was wonderful - everyone should have a shot at this at least one time in their lives," Blundell said of the four-month legislative session.

Upcountry Republican Rep. Kika Bukoski said he finds it easier to work with the Democrats when he focuses on issues instead of political parties.

In his first term three years ago, he said he was feeling his way along to an understanding of the process. Now he has the direction and goals to be effective in Honolulu, he said.

"The partisanship and the politics don't concern me," Bukoski said. "If you stay issue-oriented, then people gain respect for you. You have to go out and make friends - you have to develop relationships."

Bukoski said he is very happy with the $3.8 million allocated for a new long-term care facility in Kula, which is sorely needed to free up beds at Maui Memorial Medical Center.

He is also pleased with the $19.5 million set aside to add a fourth lane to Haleakala Highway between Pukalani and Hana Highway and with the funding for the air-ambulance helicopter.

Disappointments he named include the lack of funding for an around-the-clock Kula ambulance, the failure to fund the next phase of a dual-waterline project that would give Upcountry farmers a source of nonpotable irrigation water, and his failed attempt to get money to develop for Upcountry homes, groundwater sources that would be less corrosive than surface water and prevent lead from leaching into drinking water.

"All in all, the session was positive in light of the economic conditions and conditions in the world," he said. "We passed a balanced budget that contains less spending than last year, without raising taxes or raiding the hurricane fund and still doing well on public education."

Nakasone said he was disappointed that the $10-per-month tax for long-term care that was approved was not offset by a tax credit. The new tax is going to hurt lower-income residents the most, he said.

He also was disappointed at the failure of a proposal to allow the City and County of Honolulu to add a 1 percent charge to the general excise tax that it would collect in exchange for giving up its share of the state's hotel room tax to the other three counties and the state. The measure would have increased Maui County's share of the hotel room tax pool.

Sen. Shan Tsutsui also supported the measure, which at one point would have been expanded to give all four counties the ability to tack on the additional 1 percent on retail sales.

That proposal would have seen the state keep the room-tax revenue, which Tsutsui said could have been used to give education a shot in the arm.

Tsutsui, a freshman Democrat who represents Central Maui, said he too was pleased at how well Maui County fared in the CIP budget.

The Maui Lani school is needed to ease the load on the Wailuku and Lihikai elementary schools, he said.

He also cited the air-ambulance funding, highway projects and the Kula long-term care facility as accomplishments of the Maui County delegation this year.

Sen. Roz Baker, who represents West and South Maui and chairs the Senate Health Committee, said she worked hard to find the funding for community health centers.

About $10.4 million of the state's money from the tobacco lawsuit settlement is being used for critical health and safety needs, including the rural health centers, she said.

Baker also worked hard to get $750,000 appropriated for additional kidney dialysis stations at St. Francis Medical Center in Wailuku.

And although money to expand ambulance services in Kula and South Maui was trimmed, she said the ground crew serving the new air ambulance will be based in Wailea and able to help out in the area when not working with the emergency helicopter.

Baker said state lawmakers did the best they could with the resources available in a challenging session for everyone.

"We weren't able to meet all the needs or do everything - we had to come up with reasonable priorities," Baker said. "All things considered with where the budget is, we did quite well."

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