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House Finance Committee approves its version of state budget

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The state House Committee on Finance passed a nearly $23.2 billion budget for fiscal years 2014 and 2015, about $600 million shy of Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s request for $23.8 billion.

Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said the committee took a cautious approach despite positive revenue projections because of uncertainty cast by federal budget cuts and ongoing collective bargaining negotiations.

Abercrombie asked for $11.8 billion in fiscal 2014 and $12 billion in 2015 to cover the state’s total operating costs. Instead, the committee approved $11.5 billion for fiscal 2014 and $11.7 billion for fiscal 2015.

The budget meets the governor’s request for at least $100 million per year to draw down the state’s growing unfunded liabilities. Luke says lawmakers are committed to addressing the rising cost of employee retirement and health benefits and set aside $100 million for fiscal 2014 and $105 million for fiscal 2015.

The finance committee’s budget, approved today, appropriates funding for numerous capital improvement projects and adds positions at several state departments, including 19 specialists and inspectors for invasive species protection at the Department of Agriculture.

But the committee also removed funding for more than 900 state positions that have been vacant for two or more years.

Luke says the committee hopes to improve accountability for government agencies, which previously used the unused salaries to cover vacation buyouts.

Luke also noted that the committee’s proposal includes funding for veterans’ services, airport surveillance, housing and more than $100 million to help improve school infrastructure.

She says the committee is still considering alternate funding sources to help protect Hawaii’s watersheds and that the funding may come from bonds or the general fund. The governor’s proposed initiatives to fund watershed preservation — increasing the conveyance tax and adding a fee to checkout bags — both failed in the House earlier this session.

The budget does not include funding for initiatives that the Legislature is still debating, such as Abercrombie’s proposed preschool program.

The committee also voted today on budget appropriations for the judiciary and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

The committee voted to give OHA about $5.3 million, less than their $7 million request.

The committee also voted to restore the salaries of judges and appropriated about $288 million for the judiciary. The judiciary had requested about $291 million.

The deadline for the full House to vote on the state budget is next week Wednesday. If passed, the draft budget will go to the Senate for consideration.

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