Lawmakers aim to see projects completed

Last legislative session, Maui’s lawmakers were able to secure more than $300 million in funds for various initiatives on-island, including $130 million for a long-awaited Kihei high school, $20 million for the acquisition of Lipoa Point and millions more in airport and harbor improvements.

While legislators promised to continue lobbying for funds in the upcoming session that begins today, Maui residents should not expect to see quite so many new projects starting this year as they did last year.

“Last year, we were very aggressive in trying to secure funding for these projects,” West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey said Monday. “Right now, the thing is making sure they’re executed.”

McKelvey said he would continue to push for additional design and construction funds of the Lahaina bypass “beyond the phase 2 section of the project,” while making sure that ongoing issues, like speed limit concerns along the existing roadway, are addressed.

McKelvey added that while he and other lawmakers are optimistic about passing measures this session to benefit their Maui constituents, he warned that a “softening of the (economic) forecast” and slower construction growth means less of a budget surplus than originally anticipated.

“We just have to be mindful of our spending, everything has to be justified,” he said.

Even money or credits that may have been approved in the first year of the biennium can be stripped if legislators deem them to be misappropriated, McKelvey said.

“Unless the money has been certified, released and expended, then anything can happen,” McKelvey said. “Kihei high school can get yanked away just like that if the boat shifts. I’ve seen it happen before.”

The film industry, which was granted up to 25 percent tax breaks last session, will likely need to justify continued credits, showing how many jobs were created directly or indirectly and present an economic growth model, McKelvey said.

“As soon as the books get open, it’s fair game,” McKelvey said of the new lawmaking session and the second year of the biennium (two-year budget cycle). “Everyone has to come back to the table and justify what you’ve gotten the first year if you want continued funding.”

One thing McKelvey does not expect to be discussed this legislative session is the proposed undersea power cable between Maui and Oahu. The Public Utilities Commission will be hosting public hearings in the upcoming months, but it is not likely that a measure would appear before the Legislature within the next five years.

South and West Maui Sen. Roz Baker also noted that capital improvement projects this year would likely be “on a smaller scale” compared to last year, though she will lobby to secure funds for building repair and maintenance at Princess Nahienaena Elementary and Lahainaluna High School.

Baker said she also hopes to secure staff positions necessary to continue the Hawaiian immersion program at Lahaina Intermediate School and eventually extend the program to the high school. Currently, students seeking to continue their Hawaiian immersion education after graduating from the program at Princess Nahienaena must be transported by bus more than an hour Upcountry to Kalama Intermediate School.

A bill to allow Maui Memorial Medical Center to negotiate a public-private partnership died last session, halting talks between the hospital’s administration and potential partner, Arizona-based Banner Health. Baker said she hopes to revisit the discussion, but she said that any legislation, if passed, would “likely not be partner-specific.”

“I believe a policy framework will be necessary before any productive discussions can be concluded,” Baker said in an email.

Maui Memorial Medical Center, the largest hospital within the Hawaii Health Systems Corp., has struggled with obtaining much-needed state funding for years, hospital officials said. Entering into a partnership would not only help offset costs, but would also allow access to new technology, research and employee training, officials said.

House Speaker Joe Souki of Wailuku said the Legislature “will be looking at options this year with the hospital . . . to improve the specialties in Neighbor Islands.”

“The problem with Neighbor Islands is the market is too small,” he said. “We don’t have enough people to sustain. Doctors retire or move away. They spend thousands of dollars getting educated. They need to pay (their) bills.”

Souki said he plans on revisiting a bill to increase the minimum wage; continuing to provide money for unfunded liabilities and a rainy-day fund; and seeking to restore state services that were cut during the recession, such as agricultural inspectors.

There are currently seven agricultural inspectors on Maui, according to state Agriculture Department officials. Before state budget reductions in 2009, there were 17 inspectors.

When asked whether the state plans on funding more inspectors to contain invasive species like the stinging little fire ant, which has recently found its way from the Big Island to Maui and Oahu, Souki said it’s “very likely.”

“Almost every day, invasive species are coming in,” he said. “We have to go out and look for species to fight those and then look for another one to fight those species. . . . So yes, we will continue to be embattled with that.”

Central Maui Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran said he plans to introduce a bill to recognize grandparent visitation rights in child custody disputes. He also plans to support a bill to prohibit utilities from imposing interconnection study costs and another to permit counties to manage solar easements.

Other items that are expected to be debated in this year’s legislative session include:

* A bill to increase the hourly minimum wage from $7.25 to $9 or more.

* A bill to appropriate state funds for free preschool for those who qualify as part of the governor’s early childhood education plan.

* A bill to restrict genetically engineered crops and regulate pesticide use.

* Eileen Chao can be reached at