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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, January 18, 2010

Budget a priority for Big Island lawmakers

By Jason Armstrong
Tribune-Herald Staff Writer

When the Hawaii Legislature opens Wednesday, state lawmakers will have their minds on money and money on their minds.

"I think the top priority is to balance the budget," said Senate Vice President Russell Kokubun, D-Hilo, Puna, Ka'u. "We're in such a deep hole, I think that's going to take all of our attention."

Make that a black hole.

State government is facing a $1.2 billion shortfall during the next 18-month period, which would include the rest of this fiscal year and the entire one starting July 1.

"Nothing's more important than finding $1.2 billion to cover our deficit," said Jerry Chang, D-Hilo.

That reality means lawmakers must discuss what are "essential services," said Kokubun, who believes it also includes agricultural inspectors who guard against invasive species while playing a vital business service, not just health and safety employees.

"It's down to the point where we're going to have to eliminate some essential services or we're going to have to find a way to pay for them if we want to keep them," he said. "My assessment is: I'm not sure we're going to cut our way ... to come up with a balanced budget."

Workers' wages have been reduced, teachers have been furloughed and Hawaii Island's only prison has been shuttered.

Lawmakers have even cut the pomp from opening-day ceremonies, and are asking well-wishers to make charitable donations rather than buying lei, food baskets and other gifts that typically line the halls of the Capitol when a new session starts.

"The 2010 Legislature will hold an abbreviated opening day without the entertainment, festivities or subsequent receptions that have been the tradition in past years," Rep. Clift Tsuji, D-Hilo, Puna, wrote in a recent letter to constituents. "Speeches will be curtailed and will focus on the joint effort required by all of us."

Kokubun welcomes the all-business approach.

"I don't think it's time to celebrate," he said. "I think it's time to get to work."

State Rep. Bob Herkes, D-Puna, Ka'u, Kona, said lawmakers will try to lower expenses by shaving at least a week off the session scheduled to last 60 working days.

"Let's just get down to business and just deal with the budget shortfall, which should be where the priority is," he said.

Unlike past sessions, the Democratic majority will not be offering a package of legislation, he said.

"Our main focus really is on the financial situation of the state," Herkes said. "There certainly won't be a lot of bills dealing with new expenditures."

A shorter session will put pressure on lawmakers, Tsuji said.

"This will force us to concentrate on priorities during a time of economic demise," said Tsuji, a retired senior banking executive.

His top priority?

"The top three: the budget; the budget; and the budget," Tsuji said.

All revenue sources will be "on the table," but raising Hawaii's general exercise tax will be very difficult because it's such a regressive tax, he said.

Chang predicted lawmakers will again consider giving the four counties the authority to raise Hawaii's general excise tax by 0.5 percent (only Oahu has done that) and approving a single, stand-alone Waikiki casino to raise needed money.

As returning chairman of the House Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee, Herkes said he'll be looking at deregulating nine industries to help customers through greater competition in the marketplace.

The state should stop regulating hair dressers, massage therapists, freight truckers, and tour bus drivers, Herkes said.

He also wants construction of a Ka'u evacuation shelter. Funding was approved by last year's Legislature, but has not been released by Gov. Linda Lingle.

Kokubun said that and other projects could help Hawaii's ailing economy, noting the yearly interest cost is already included in the operating budget.

"My sense is we should get them out," Kokubun said of pending state construction projects. "Let's see what we can do to stimulate the economy."

Chang said he'll seek $22 million to build a Native Hawaiian language building at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Noting the project has already been designed, Chang said both Lingle and the university's board of regents are supporting it.