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State Legislature convenes with hotel taxes, wages on agenda

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    The state Legislature convened its 2014 session this morning with a nod to Hawaii lawmakers from the past 55 years and a call for an increase in the state's minimum wage.

State lawmakers are embarking on the 2014 legislative session in one of the best fiscal positions in a long time, Speaker of the House Joseph M. Souki told House members during this morning’s opening session.

"With Hawaii’s economy growing, construction stable, tourism strong and unemployment down, there is every reason for hope and optimism," Souki (D, Waihee-Waiehu-Wailuku) said in his opening day remarks. "While the past few years have placed us in survival mode, this year we have a real chance to create opportunities."

Given the economic conditions, Souki asked House members to consider removing the cap placed on the Transient Accommodations Tax allocated to the counties, allowing them to better support Hawaii’s tourism industry.

"In this strong economy, should we not be thinking about a greater partnership with our counties who provide much of the services that directly support tourism?" he said, eliciting applause from the audience. "They are the ones who maintain our roads and parks and provide the law enforcement officers and first responders who directly serve our visitors as well as our kamaaina."

Souki also called upon legislators to allow a law passed during tough economic times that makes Hawaii’s personal income tax one of the highest in the nation to sunset as scheduled in 2015.

To compensate for the loss in state revenues, Souki suggested the state study ways to collect sales tax that are generated by out-of-state online companies and now go uncollected.

Additional opportunities that a growing economy will afford include helping kupuna and families with long-term care, aiding the homeless, creating jobs, strengthening the state’s rainy day fund, repairing schools and supporting the Governor’s Council for Literacy, Souki said.

Meanwhile, Senate President Donna Mercado Kim said the Senate will likely revisit the issue of raising the state’s minimum wage, which is now $7.25 an hour. An effort last year to raise it to $9 an hour failed.

Debates over early childhood education, genetically modified crops and state spending are also expected to dominate the election-year session.

Souki started his remarks by thanking lawmakers for their participation in last year’s special session on gay marriage and told members that it’s time to move forward and help the community heal.

"It was divisive, not only for us, but for our entire community," he said of the session that wrapped up in November with Gov. Neil Abercrombie signing a same-sex marriage bill into law. "But no matter what your stand on the issue, I want to thank you for your participation. Because as we all know, in a democracy, the discussion and debates are just as important — if not more so — than the resulting decision."

Also today, the House’s newest member Richard Creagan, a doctor and vice president of Kiolakaa Mountain Farms, was sworn into office. He replaces Denny Coffman in representing a district that includes Naalehu, Captain Cook and Keauhou. Coffman resigned last month to deal with a family health problem.

To mark 55 years of statehood, hundreds of former lawmakers were invited to today’s opening-day ceremonies, and each chamber prepared booklets that document the state’s legislative history. More than 50 former representatives and about 40 past senators were expected to attend.

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