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Lawmakers prepare to talk hospitals, marijuana, lava


HONOLULU » Hawaii lawmakers and the state’s newly elected governor are heading into the upcoming legislative session with a tight budget and a slew of looming priorities that include dealing with struggling hospitals, medical marijuana and a creeping lava flow.

Statehouse leaders and other government officials expect strong communications between the Legislature and Gov. David Ige, who served for nearly three decades in the Hawaii House and Senate.

"We feel the House will have an excellent working relationship with the governor and the Senate," House Majority Leader Scott Saiki said.

"We’re looking at trying to address some of the challenges that have not been fully resolved over the past few years," he added, noting that infrastructure issues will need particular attention.

Ige is refining a draft of the state’s two-year $25.7 billion budget and says there won’t be increases for state programs. State spending will increase, but mostly to cover paychecks, health care and pensions. Ige’s communications director, Cindy McMillan, said the governor is still working on the budget and will release his package of bills Jan. 26.

Despite the tight budget, agencies are lining up with requests. The state’s public hospital system is facing a $24.6 million budget shortfall and may have to close facilities or reduce services if it doesn’t get help, Hawaii Health Systems Corporation CEO Linda Rosen said.

"I don’t think there’s an intention to be alarmist, but it’s the reality that hard choices have to be made," Rosen said. "I don’t think anybody wants to close facilities."

Several hospitals in the chain, which spans the state, rely heavily on Medicaid payments. As a result, the hospitals’ revenues don’t fully cover expenses, Rosen said.

The Hawaii Health Connector, the state-run health exchange, also will be requesting money to address a projected deficit of up to $19 million over the next two years.

"We know the projection is for budget neutrality in 10 years, but the Legislature needs to determine whether that’s accurate," Saiki said.

Adding to the financial strain, the County of Honolulu plans to request an extension of a rail tax to support Oahu’s financially challenged rapid transit project, an appeal that could be copied by other counties, Saiki said.

The lone Republican state senator promises opposition to such spending. "Not over my dead body," Sam Slom said.

Lawmakers also will push for medical marijuana dispensaries, said Rep. Della Au Bellati, who’s working to introduce legislation. There are about 13,000 patients who need dispensaries to help them legally access the drug. "It’s long overdue, so I think we’re going to have some movement," Bellati said.

State Sen. Russell Ruderman plans to introduce a bill to decriminalize marijuana, but Saiki says that’s unlikely to pass.

Partly in recognition of the tight fiscal times, Slom and other lawmakers will push for increased government oversight to make sure money is being spent properly.

"Our whole mission is based on more transparency and more accountability in the Legislature," Slom said. "Everybody talks about these two things, but unfortunately we haven’t seen too much of it recently."

Slom plans to seek audits of the Department of Education and the University of Hawaii. And Bellati hopes to increase oversight of the state’s Medicaid program.

A creeping lava flow and tropical storm damage on Hawaii’s Big Island prompted Ruderman to prepare bills to help with recovery efforts.

An active volcano sent molten rock oozing toward a community. A stream of lava stopped just short of a shopping complex, and other areas remain under threat. One bill will try to keep insurers from canceling policies on homes that could be in the path.

"You don’t cancel insurance when it’s needed, but some companies are trying to do that in advance of the lava threat," Ruderman said. "I think that’s grossly unfair."

Hawaii’s legislative session begins Wednesday, Jan. 21.

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