Legislature faces tough money issues, according to veteran Kaua’i lawmakers

KUKUI’ULA – Various Kaua’i members of the state Legislature have referred to the constitutionally mandated balancing of the state budget as “a difficult balancing act,” adding that the state is “strapped” for funds.

Fiscal issues will immediately come to the forefront next month when the state Legislature convenes, predicted state Rep. Ezra Kanoho (D, east and south Kaua’i).

“It’ll be a difficult balancing act,” said Kanoho, adding that all departments will see their proposed budgets slashed, perhaps even the state Department of Education.

The alternatives might be to cut each departmental budget equally, or keep the DOE budget intact and then be forced to make deeper cuts in other areas, he warned.

“Certainly there will be a shortfall. In a difficult situation, you look for the money, then you use it,” said Kanoho.

The budget former Gov. Ben Cayetano, a Democrat, was required by the state Constitution to submit before he departed, is balanced, and uses the remainder of the state hurricane relief fund to balance the budget, said Kanoho.

Entering his 15th year in the state House, Kanoho said he favors using the hurricane relief fund to help balance the state budget.

“We are going to be strapped for funds,” said state Rep. Mina Morita (D, north and east Kaua’i), who as chair of the House Committee on Energy & Environmental Protection remains “specifically focused on energy issues.”

Both lawmakers spoke before nearly 50 people at Lawai Beach Resort, at a legislative forum co-sponsored by the Kaua’i Chamber of Commerce and Poipu Beach Resort Association.

State Rep. Bertha Kawakami (D, south and west Kaua’i, Ni’ihau), vice chair of the House Finance Committee, was not present at the forum.

Morita’s work will continue to emphasize energy self-sufficiency and “energy security” issues, saying that the island of Kaua’i lost around $25 million the last time there was a spike in the price of gasoline, in 2000.

The state needs to conduct a management audit of the state Public Utilities Commission, which remains short-staffed and hasn’t had a management audit conducted since 1989, Morita said.

As a result, fees paid to the PUC are not being used to address the issues the PUC needs to address, such as utility pricing stability that she contends is necessary in order to have a prosperous economy.

“Energy is high-tech,” she said, adding that by the end of the current decade, some $95 billion in capitalization toward a hydrogen economy will have occurred.

Morita is concerned about a potential leadership shortage the state Department of Education could face, with lots of public-school principals nearing retirement age.

“Leadership starts at the school level,” and personal empowerment should also begin at the school level, she said.

Morita mentioned that a state Legislative Reference Bureau report indicates that it costs $450 million a year to deal with invasive species, a figure she said appears to be more than necessary, especially when compounded by the fact that certain state and federal agencies charged with eradicating or controlling invasive species are not coordinating efforts.

Kanoho reiterated his support for public education, calling it a critical “quality-of-life” issue for Kaua’i and the state.

The state Legislature will also again wrestle with the issue of long-term care, as it has for the past decade, said Kanoho.

“One way or another, we’re going to have to pay for that,” said Kanoho, who prefers paying up front instead of paying a higher price at the time the care is needed.

He said some legislators lost bids for re-election as a result of their support for health-care reforms where the state employee retirement system is concerned. But something had to be done, he noted, because the system that pays out $250 million a year in benefits to retirees will be facing an annual bill of $1 billion by 2013.

Chair of the combined Committee on Water, Land Use & Hawaiian Affairs, Kanoho said there will be many “contentious” issues before that committee, including a constitutional mandate to protect the state’s best agricultural lands for farming.

His idea is to pass bills that will, among other initiatives, keep good farmers on fertile state lands.

Ceded lands revenue payments, Native Hawaiian entitlements, and other hot topics will be before his committee, he said.

Staff Writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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