The Hawaii Legislature has begun its 2015 session with plans to tackle a tight budget and issues including providing affordable housing and improving patients’ access to medical marijuana.
The Senate and House opened their sessions on Wednesday morning.
In her opening remarks, Senate President Donna Mercado Kim pledged to bring transparency and accountability to the legislative process, and announced she would propose the establishment of an office of the inspector general to investigate complaints alleging fraud, waste, abuse or corruption.
"Government officials should be held accountable for broken promises, miscalculations and bloated assumptions," Kim said.
Kim also said she would ask Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, to begin discussions about whether counties should be allowed to enact a half-percent tax that would be earmarked for housing, transportation, road improvements and enforcement of transient vacation rentals.
"The counties are urged to step up enforcement of transient vacation rental ordinances," Kim said. "The state and counties are losing millions of dollars in TAT and GET revenues, money which we cannot afford to ignore."
The Legislature is already faced with millions of dollars in requests. The Hawaii Health Systems Corporation, University of Hawaii and Hawaii Health Connector are asking for financial help, but Gov. David Ige has already said there’s no extra money in the state’s two-year, $25.7 billion budget.
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.
"We must promise no new taxes," said Sen. Sam Slom, the lone Republican in the Senate. "We can’t throw good money after bad money."
House Speaker Joe Souki spoke about the importance of providing affordable health care for everyone. He urged his fellow lawmakers to think "outside the box" for solutions to the state hospital system’s financial problems to ensure that the facilities remained open to treat patients.
"Maui Memorial and Hawaii Pacific Health are looking at a public-private partnership that could improve health care on Maui and generate savings for taxpayers," Souki said. "It behooves us to study this opportunity carefully and look at legislation for this and other potential partnerships."
Souki also shared the goal of ensuring that patients who wish to be treated with medical marijuana have access to the drug.
"Yes, it is legal in Hawaii. But there is no legal access to it," Souki said. "The time has come to fix this contradiction."
There will be proposals that aim to regulate genetically modified foods and to control the use of pesticides, issues that drew heated debate during last year’s session. Meanwhile, demonstrators and spectators made their voices heard at the state Capitol rotunda before the session began.
Cha Smith, of Kahala, wants the legislature to pass a bill requiring labeling of genetically modified produce and clamping down on GMO-related pesticides.
"The reality is the Big 5 still runs the state and the people are not in control. (Legislators) are at a crossroads and I’m optimistic that they have an opportunity," Smith said. "They have a legal mandate to protect our resources."
Cliff Lee, of Moiliili, and Jeane Chun, of Pacific Heights, retired ‘Iolani School teachers, hope Gov. David Ige’s experience in the legislature will help him pass education reforms.
"I’m very optimistic," Lee said. "I’m hopeful Ige will be able to work with the legislature. I’m hopeful it’s going to be a good working relationship, rather than adversarial."
"I have a hunch Ige understands the people and he has experience with the legislative view," Chun said. Chun hopes the legislature improves educational opportunities for pre-school children, which helps teachers and other students later when pre-schoolers move up through higher grades, she said.
Mahealani Kahanaoi, of Papakolea, staffed a table in the Capitol atrium with other Hawaiian sovereignty activists and said Native Hawaiian should not rely on the legislature to improve their lives.
"Our people are not dependent on the decisions and results that come out of the legislative body," Kahanaoi said. "We are independent. We’re not looking for them to make things better. If we become dependent on them, it becomes a cycle that keeps repeating. We know who we are."
Mark Sheehan, of Haiku, Maui, president of the Maui Tomorrow Foundation, wants a better prison system and more restrictions on GMO crops.
"I’m optimistic that people will go to their legislators and get them to listen to them, instead of listening to the lobbyists," Sheehan said.
Lawmakers also may consider bills to help residents of Hawaii’s Big Island who are dealing with lava. One proposal calls for insurance reform so homeowners who may live in the path of the lava don’t have their policies canceled.
Star-Advertiser reporter Dan Nakaso contributed to this story.