A new year, outlook for legislators

LIHUE — Early education, invasive species, public hospital funding, and pesticides and genetically modified organisms.

These are just a few of the issues state lawmakers will be considering over the next few months as the Legislature convenes today for its first regular session of 2014.

It is one that, some Kauai legislators say, promises to deal with a range of issues that have direct ties to the Garden Isle.

“I think this session is more about putting a period at the end of the sentence — to make sure that we finish everything without any unintended consequences,” said Rep. Daynette “Dee” Morikawa, D-Koloa-Niihau. “We did a lot of good stuff during the last legislative session but there are a few things that we still have to finish up.”

One topic lawmakers will be considering in the coming months, Morikawa said, is funding for a joint proposal from Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s Executive Office on Early Learning and the state Department of Education to create a prekindergarten program in 30 elementary schools statewide.

Among those schools chosen for the program are Eleele and Kekaha Elementary schools, which would receive one classroom each for 20 children.

“You have to realize that there’s not a lot of access to preschools on the island,” Morikawa said. “For them to choose two Westside schools, I think we were really lucky.”

If the $4.5 million in requested funds are appropriated by the Legislature, the program may be implemented as early as the 2014-2015 school year.

Another topic up for discussion will also be the state’s economy.

Senate Vice President Sen. Ron Kouchi, D-Kauai-Niihau, said the economy has shown noticeable improvements compared to a few years ago, when the state was operating at a deficit and economic and environmental concerns were surfacing from the 2011 tsunami that struck the Tohoku region of Japan.

“Clearly, there’s a lot more optimism about funding programs that are going to be a part of the solution for Hawaii going forward,” Kouchi said.

A crucial part of that, he said, is ensuring there are affordable housing options for Kauai’s residents, who are seeing values soar on available homes for sale and a dearth of housing inventory.

Another piece of that puzzle, said Rep. Derek S.K. Kawakami, D-Wailua-Hanalei, is ensuring there is a balance between spending and saving at a time when the state is experiencing a $844 million surplus, according to June 2013 financial reports released by Abercrombie’s office.

“You still have to remain fiscally responsible even in the light of having a surplus,” Kawakami said. “That money should go into restoring safety nets, such as the hurricane fund, and also address our unfunded liabilities, such as the state Employees’ Retirement System and Employment and Training Fund.”

An issue that has generated some consensus among legislators statewide is the threat of invasive species, which has raised a few eyebrows on Kauai over the past few years.

“We have already seen a glimpse of the damage and harm that this invasive species has had to Hawaii Island and Maui,” Rep. James “Jimmy” Kunane Tokioka, D-Wailua Homesteads-Omao, wrote in an email. “Like the coqui frog, we don’t want to see the fire ant on Kauai. Unlike the coqui frog, however, the effects of the fire ant could potentially be deadly.”

Tokioka said he and other state lawmakers are working on legislation that would provide additional funding for invasive species organizations, including the Kauai Invasive Species Committee, to bolster current protection efforts.

Those aren’t the only pests being looked at.

Morikawa and Kawakami said legislators are also eyeing invasive plants, like the Australian tree fern and albizia tree, that harm native forests and watersheds.

“Ultimately, it’s all about protecting those resources,” Morikawa said. “We need to think about finding those incidences and how to respond to them once they’re reported.”

One issue that Kauai legislators agreed will likely come up is the continued discussion of pesticides used and genetically modified organisms grown by large-scale agricultural companies on Kauai.

But in what form that turns out to be and what may come of it, legislators say, remains to be seen.

“I have received calls regarding the pre-emption of county legislation, however, I’m not introducing a bill or know of anyone who will be at this point,” Tokioka wrote.

On the state level, there is the Department of Agriculture’s Kauai Agricultural Good Neighbor Program, which established voluntary standards and guidelines for restricted use pesticide use reporting and buffer zones in November.

Officials from Kauai County overrode Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr.’s veto on Bill 2491, placing specific requirements on restricted pesticide use disclosures and buffer zones. That law, now Ordinance 960, is being challenged in court.

Hawaii County officials followed suit in December by approving a law to limit the planting of new genetically modified crops. Maui County officials are considering a bill similar to the one passed on Kauai.

“It definitely got a lot of publicity during this past year coming from the county levels,” Kawakami said. “It’s hard to tell because I just haven’t heard too much about what’s going to be coming up, but the GMO issue is always going to be an issue that we have to deal with because it stirs a lot of emotions.”

There also is, legislators say, an important need for lawmakers to discuss critical changes to Hawaii Health Systems Corporation, which manages the state’s public hospitals and clinics, including Kauai Veterans Memorial Hospital in Waimea and Samuel Mahelona Memorial Hospital in Kapaa.

During last year’s special session, HHSC officials successfully lobbied for $7.3 million in emergency funds intended to keep Kauai’s clinics and hospitals operational through this spring, when another emergency appropriation can be considered.

“We need to take a look at the HHSC system and see what we can address to make it a more viable operation as far as being more self-sustaining,” Kawakami said.

• Darin Moriki, county government reporter, can be reached at 245-0428 or dmoriki@thegardenisland.com. Follow him on Twitter at @darinmoriki.

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