HONOLULU - The Hawaii House has passed its version of a $23.25 billion state budget for fiscal years 2013-2015 that secures funding for state departments and capital improvements but falls about $600 million short of Gov. Neil Abercrombie's proposal.
Despite not meeting Abercrombie's request, the House proposal that lawmakers approved unanimously is a marked increase from the $21.9 billion biennial budget passed in 2011.
Several members of the House Committee on Finance, which published the latest draft of the bill last week, spoke during the Wednesday House session to highlight the budget's contributions to agriculture, environmental protection and public safety.
Shortly after the House vote, the state Council on Revenues published a new forecast predicting increased state revenues. But Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said the news was expected and doesn't affect her position on the budget proposal.
The House draft restores resources to departments that suffered cuts in recent years. Luke said she is committed to a cautious approach because of uncertainty surrounding federal budget cuts and unresolved union negotiations.
Sen. David Ige, chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, said the committee hasn't had a chance to examine the House proposal but agrees with Luke that the state's revenue projection shouldn't change lawmakers' approach.
"Although the economy is better, we do want to be careful of how we choose to grow government," Ige said. "The unfunded liability is still the 16-pound gorilla in the room."
He noted the projections could help the state resolve collective bargaining and consider tax credit bills.
Despite the unanimous support for the House budget draft, some House minority members were not completely satisfied with the draft.
"It's too soon to give it a clean bill of health," said Rep. Gene Ward, a Republican from Hawaii Kai who voted with reservations.
He said he is concerned about aspects of the proposal that could hurt Chinese tourism. He also said the proposal is too dependent on fee increases.
"It increases spending at the time when we are at the edge of a fiscal cliff," Ward said.
Republican Rep. Richard Fale, from the North Shore, also voted with reservations.
The House budget includes $1.7 billion for capital improvement projects in fiscal year 2013-2014 and more than $900 million in fiscal 2014-2015.
That sets aside more than $100 million to improve public schools and more than $100 for the University of Hawaii system.
In addition to capital improvements, the proposal also accounts for state department operating costs and dedicates $7.9 million to update the state's information technology systems.
It also carves out at least $100 million per year to address the state's growing unfunded liabilities for employee health care and pensions.
The proposal adds funding for personnel at state departments such as the Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health. At the same time, it cuts more than 900 state positions that have been vacant for more than two years.
Ige said the Senate committee will take a look at that decision. He said he agrees with the House's objectives but thinks that department budgets are already pretty lean.
The House bill doesn't appropriate any money for bills that the Legislature is still debating, such as the governor's preschool program or collective bargaining agreements.
In addition to the executive budget, the House also unanimously passed budget proposals for the judiciary and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.
The proposed judiciary budget is about $288 million, just shy of its request for $291 million. Lawmakers want to provide almost $4.5 million to restore the salaries of judges, who took a pay cut in 2009.
The committee voted to give OHA about $5.3 million, much less than the office's $7 million request. The bills now go to the Senate for consideration.