WAILUKU - Central Maui lawmakers are echoing an emerging theme for legislators faced with the state's $1.2 billion budget shortfall - work to protect already-funded capital improvement projects in their districts.
State Sen. Shan Tsutsui and House Reps. Joe Souki and Gil Keith-Agaran said they'll be working to ensure money set aside for schools, the island's only acute-care hospital and Maui Community College remains intact.
Keith-Agaran pointed out that capital improvement projects in Central Maui tend to benefit the entire island, citing how the hospital and college serve island residents living outside of Kahului and Wailuku.
"Understand that our district in many ways serves all of Maui County; our only commercial harbor, hospital, airport, college and major schools are located in Central Maui," he said.
Keith-Agaran said he's trying to get more information on the status of possible projects that need small appropriations this year at the hospital, the harbors and maybe even highways.
Souki and Keith-Agaran said money for major capital improvement projects comes through bond financing and tends to benefit the community more because it generates employment.
"We should be looking at projects and putting people back to work," Keith-Agaran said.
Only Souki is hoping to find money for a new project - a second elementary school in Waihee. "Maybe just design money that we could purchase through bonds," he said.
According to Souki, Waihee Elementary School cannot expand at its current site because of lack of land, but the communities it serves are growing with more Hawaiian homestead houses being built at Waiehu Kou and more homes at Wailuku Country Estates.
Souki said he'll also press for the release of capital improvement money for Maui Economic Opportunity Inc., which is building a new bus site in Puunene, and Kula Hospital, which wants to add more long-term care beds - a move that would make more space available at Maui Memorial Medical Center.
Souki has long supported a statewide ban on using cell phones while driving, and he said he will try again to introduce legislation calling for prohibitions on talking and texting on cell phones.
"It's becoming a national concern, even a congressional concern," Souki said. He said he believes he has the support of his fellow House members for the cell phone ban, but not in the Senate.
A $1.4 billion highway modernization bill was held up in the Legislature's conference committee last year, Souki said. But "there's lots of negotiations that have to go on with the Senate" for the measure to move forward.
The highway bill, according to Souki, provides approximately $350 million in projects for Maui, including bridge repairs across the island and road projects in Kahului and Lahaina.
In separate legislation, Souki said he'd like to introduce a referendum bill on gambling, which was "stuck" last session in the tourism committee. "It's up or down. We need to let the people decide," he said.
As a member of the House Finance Committee, Keith-Agaran said, he will focus on addressing the state budget shortfall and ways to help Maui's businesses maintain jobs and provide benefits to its workers.
"We need to address the expected hike in unemployment in insurance premiums and to reduce any impacts of additional fees and taxes," he said.
Tsutsui said he believes previous appropriations for the Baldwin High School library and a second elementary school in Wailuku should keep those two important projects moving in his district.
He advises nonprofits not to seek money for new projects this year.
"This year is the year you spend money you already got," Tsutsui said. "If projects need money to keep moving, that might have a better chance over brand-new projects."
As far as new legislation, Tsutsui has one bill that would create a pilot project to transfer jurisdiction of state highways in Maui County from the state Department of Transportation to the Maui Transportation Department. The bill "finds that counties are more economically efficient at providing highway functions."
Tsutsui is also supporting legislation along with his Maui colleagues, state Sens. Roz Baker and J. Kalani English, to allow Gov. Linda Lingle to raid the hurricane relief fund to restore instructional days for the 2009-10 public school year, which so far has lost eight days because of furloughs for public school teachers.
* Claudine San Nicolas can be reached at claudine @mauinews.com.