Categorized | Government, News

Isle legislators outline session priorities

Karin Stanton | Hawaii 24/7 Contributing Editor

Three of West Hawaii’s state lawmakers have differing ideas about the transient accommodation tax and how much the county should be awarded in this tough economy.

Sen. Josh Green and Reps. Cindy Evans and Denny Coffman spoke Tuesday evening at the Kona Town Meeting, outlining their top priorities for the legislative session that begins Jan. 20.

While each lawmaker has a slate of bills and issues to address, one of the touchy subjects that is looming large is the T.A.T. The Big Island typically expects around $18 million annually from the tax levied on hotel rooms.

All four county mayors told lawmakers last week they need their share of the state tax, which was eyed by state lawmakers last year.

Green said he understands the budget crunch each county is facing.

“We’re going to really stand by our mayors,” he said. “I’m going to be voting against it.”

Evans said the T.A.T. is only one fund that lawmakers will be scrutinizing.

“We won’t see economic growth until 2012. We’re going to have to make tough decisions,” she said. “The Legislature this year is going to be looking at everything.”

Evans said one possibility is to give county’s some of the money, but not the full amount they have been getting.

Coffman said he would be voting to keep the entire T.A.T. haul at the state level.

“The counties haven’t been doing their job (in providing core county services),” he said. “My feeling right now is the county has more slush money than the state does. We’ll go through it and see where the truth lies.”

Coffman said the House Finance Committee is reviewing the fund to see where the dollars come from before deciding where they will go. He said he suspects most of the money is raised in Honolulu.

All three also spoke on furlough Fridays.

Evans said residents are demanding the Legislature take action to return students to classrooms.

She cautioned that the issue is complicated and involves more than the teachers’ union.

“There are three unions with negotiated contracts, with UPW and HGEA,” she said. “You can’t just put the teachers back in school without the janitors, cafeteria workers, all the support staff. Everyone I’ve talked to says ‘you’ve got to fix it.’ So we’ll be intervening and trying to find a solution.”

Green said he will introduce a bill that mandates a 180-day curriculum.

“We’re not doing right by our students. It’s not the teachers’ fault,” he said. “It puts our students in an absolutely untenable situation.”

In response to a question from Hawaii 24/7 student reporter Finn Gallagher, Green said his bill would ensure school days could not be further reduced.

“The answer I have is that it is time to ensconce in law a minimum number of school days,” Green said. “If we make a commitment in law, it will not be something that can be debated or played around with.”

Among other topics addressed by the lawmakers:

* Cindy Evans (District 7 – North Kona, South Kohala)

“We’re in a little bit of uncharted waters,” she said. “We’re already going in in the hole.”

Evans, who will serve as floor leader, said she intends to introduce bills that will cut out dated programs.

Specifically, she said she wants to eliminate the aquaculture development program – “We’ve done our job on that. I don’t believe the government needs to do that anymore.”

Also, Evans said, she wants to repeal the $7 daily allowance for National Guard uniform maintenance. Historically, the uniforms needed to be dry cleaned, but newer materials are easier to clean and maintain.

Thirdly, she want to streamline and update the pension supplement system. Currently, checks intended to supplement retirees with lower pensions must be approved by three departments.

“There’s a true inefficiency here in Hawaii,” she said. “At some point we have to make that technology leap.”

* Denny Coffman (District 6 – North Kona, Keauhou, Kailua-Kona, Honokohau)

“We don’t even know how bad the year is going to be,” Coffman said. “I wish I had better news on the budget. It’s going to be interesting.”

Coffman said he would like to see more equality for commercial harbor users around the state, especially those who hold the 120 permits at Honokohau Harbor, and truth in labeling for Kona coffee.

Coffman said he also will be tackling retirement benefit reform, the centralized school system, and food and energy self-sufficiency.

Hawaii should be a world leader in zero waste, he said.

“We keep trying to hide it, but we can’t,” he said. “We keep burying it and digging it up.”

* Josh Green (District 3 – North and South Kohala, North and South Kona)

“Hawaii is gong to survive, but not at status quo,” he said. “We really can do a lot better.”

Once again, Green will lead with reshaping Hawaii’s health care system.

This year, he said, he will introduce a bill to make the Hawaii Health Care Systems a non-profit entity in an effort to save $60 million annually.

“It will require sacrifice,” he said. “It’s absolutely critical we do this.”

Green said he will prioritize a comprehensive sustainable energy bill seek to make DUI laws stronger and look to keep non-violent drug offenders out of jail and in treatment programs.

Green, who is an emergency room doctor, also addressed the national health bill.

“It’s not a good bill, but do I want to see it passed? Frankly, yes,” he said.

With 45 million uninsured, the current system will crumble, Green said, although he is not in favor of insurance companies running the country’s health care system.

“I read 2,000 pages of that bill and it is full of craziness,” he said. “But I do think we have to pass it. I don’t love it, but we can’t wait 10 more years to start the process.”

Kona Town Meetings are presented by Community Enterprises, a non-partisan, non-profit organization, to provide vital information on community concerns to Kona citizens.

For more information, contact Fred Housel at 331-8602 or Fred@kieleokona.com or visit konatownmeeting.org/

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