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Lawmakers prepare to tackle state budget

By Anita Hofschneider

Associated Press

LAST UPDATED: 5:04 a.m. HST, Jan 16, 2013

Hawaii lawmakers were gearing up to address major issues that include the state budget, food and energy independence and education as the 2013 legislative session opens today.

A morning ceremony at the Hawaii Capitol was expected to feature performances by local musicians and remarks from leading lawmakers.

State Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria, a Democrat, said voters can expect sweeping legislation to help Hawaii rely less on imports and more on local foods. That shift won't be easy, Galuteria said.

"Farming is not sexy," he said.

More than 85 percent of food in Hawaii comes from out-of-state, according to a state report published in October.

The Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism found Hawaii consumers spent about $3.1 billion every two years on imported food. Replacing 10 percent of imported food with local food would add more than $300 million to Hawaii's economy every two years, the report said.

Education and state information technology systems are also top priorities for the Senate majority, Galuteria said.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie wants more funding for both of these areas. He is also asking for more money to fund retiree health care and state employee pensions.

Abercrombie, a Democrat, is requesting $11.7 billion in total funds for fiscal year 2014 and $12.1 billion for fiscal year 2015.

State lawmakers have said they are worried about whether the state can count on as much money from the federal government as in the past, given the death of Sen. Daniel Inouye last month. The longtime U.S. senator was chair of the Appropriations Committee and was known for channeling federal funds to the islands through earmarks and strong relationships with other lawmakers.

Federal funds make up nearly one-fifth of the Hawaii budget — about $2 billion each year. With Congress no longer using earmarks and otherwise considering significant cuts to many programs, state officials expect support from Washington, D.C., to go down.

House Majority Leader Scott Saiki said the House majority wants a balanced budget this session. The governor likely won't get all the funding for education he proposes, Saiki said.

Abercrombie is requesting about $32 million over the next two years for a new preschool initiative. Hawaii is one of 11 states that do not have an early learning program.

Saiki, a Democrat, said the House also will address the management of public lands and various social issues. "We will be taking a hard look at the (Public Land Development Corp.)," Saiki said.

The state agency was established in 2011 to develop state lands through public-private partnerships. Environmental groups and Native Hawaiian advocates have criticized the agency for its power to ignore county zoning rules.

Saiki said he expects marijuana legalization to be one of several contentious bills about social issues introduced this session.

Rep. Karl Rhoads, a Democrat, said he plans to introduce gun control legislation. He said he may also put forth a bill to legalize assisted suicide, modeled after an Oregon law.

The Democratic Party of Hawaii has control of both the state House and Senate. The party has dominated Hawaii politics since statehood.

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