HONOLULU - After three years of deep cuts to the state budget, lawmakers spent the 2012 legislative session trying to determine what programs and positions they should restore.
In the end, they focused on core government services and initiatives that could bring relief to Hawaii residents who need it the most.
The $11.2 million budget restores some state jobs lost during the economic recession. It also seeks to create new ones in the construction industry.
The goal was to "triage targeted programs to make sure the most basic needs are met, particularly in human services, education and agriculture," said House Finance Chairman Marcus Oshiro, D-Wahiawa.
New money went toward public assistance for needy families and state subsidized health coverage. Agriculture inspector positions were restored to help fight invasive species entering at state airports and harbors. Education funding was directed into the classroom, as well as toward necessary repair and maintenance projects that can help revive the construction industry.
Lawmakers stressed that $14 million was going to the Department of Education's weighted student formula budget, which allows for discretionary spending at the school level.
They also put $1.4 million toward rehabilitating uninhabitable state rental units to help shorten the wait list for public housing. This also included creating 19 electrician, carpenter, plumber and housing specialist jobs.
Oshiro noted that there are those who felt that available resources should be used to help return the status quo. Those working on the budget avoided that approach, however, choosing instead to focus on programs with the biggest impact, he said.
"We advanced important measures with the citizens of Hawaii in mind, hoping to make our state a better place for everyone to live, now and in the future," said Senate President Shan Tsutsui, D-Wailuku-Kahului.
For the Senate, job creation was a top priority. While its flagship "Invest in Hawaii Act" failed to gain traction in the House, the two sides compromised by putting $414 million in the budget to address repair and maintenance backlogs at state facilities. Priority will go to "shovel-ready" projects that will create 4,000 jobs in all sectors of the construction industry.
Sen. Michelle Kidani, who oversaw the construction budget in the Senate, said the bond financing would go toward repairs at public housing projects and hospitals, as well as in public schools and on University of Hawaii campuses.
"We have taken the approach of investing in existing state infrastructure," said Kidani, D-Mililani.
In addition, the university system was provided $27.5 million in additional funding to address rising enrollment at community colleges. Another $10 million will go toward construction of Kapiolani Community College's Culinary Institute of the Pacific.
The Legislature was also able to award grants-in-aid this session, after having to cut back on assistance for nonprofit groups during the recession.
The grants will go toward charitable organizations and community centers, as well as groups that promote literacy and the arts.
The largest grant - $1.75 million - went to Wahiawa General Hospital, which has seen a significant uptick in emergency room patients since Hawaii Medical Centers closed its West Oahu hospital at the end of 2011.
Lawmakers also authorized the issuance of up to $80 million in special purpose revenue bonds to St. Francis Healthcare System of Hawaii for the potential reopening of Hawaii Medical Center East in Liliha, which was also closed due to bankruptcy.
Oshiro offered a list of budget highlights to his colleagues on Thursday, describing them as efforts to "reprioritize, rehabilitate and renew" government services.
They included $250,000 for an early childhood obesity and diabetes prevention program and $700,000 for statewide implementation of a program that provides educational programs for Native Hawaiian children and encourages them to attend college.
Another $3.4 million will go toward the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, which includes plans to return inmates housed in Mainland prisons.
Adult learners will also benefit from $3.3 million for general equivalency diploma, English as a second language and other continuing education programs. At the university level, $26.4 million is going toward continuing construction at UH-West Oahu, whose Kapolei campus is to open in August. Another $3.3 million goes toward a bookstore, dining, catering and parking lot management.
Toward the end of session, enthusiasm waned for a proposal to charge a 10-cent fee for disposable plastic and paper shopping bags. Revenue from the fee would have been used primarily to protect the state's water supply. While lawmakers opted against the fee, they did give the Department of Land and Natural Resources $2.5 million to launch an initiative to protect priority watersheds across the state.
Not all measures passed this session will have an immediate impact.
Some, such as investments in the aerospace industry, won't be evident to the average Hawaii resident for years. As aerospace champion Sen. Will Espero pointed out, the industry is still in its infancy.