As legislative session nears, lawmakers talk about priorities
Highways, schools, housing and homelessness will be among Maui County lawmakers’ top issues as they begin this year’s legislative session on Wednesday.
And, as always, what can or cannot be done will depend on money and on the Maui County contingent’s ability to compete with other legislators statewide — all, as longtime Central Maui Rep. Joe Souki likes to say, vying to “bring home the bacon.”
Even though Maui lost Souki as speaker at the end of last year’s session, an ouster engineered by current Speaker Scott Saiki, the contingent’s ace in the hole may well be another Central Maui lawmaker, Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran.
After last year’s session, he was elevated to vice chairman of the powerful Senate Ways and Means Committee. On the panel, he will manage capital improvement projects — the same role as Upcountry state Rep. Kyle Yamashita on the House Finance Committee.
Having Mauians in those key positions will help but not ensure a green light for Maui County projects needing state funding.
Big-ticket items include construction of the Kihei high school, highway improvements and a $28.8 million operating subsidy for Maui Health System as it has taken over public hospitals on Maui and Lanai. Projects with smaller price tags include $8 million to complete new medium-security housing at the overcrowded Maui Community Correctional Center in Wailuku and $3 million for a project with the Trust for Public Land to purchase and protect 3,000 acres at Kamehamenui on the northern slope of Haleakala.
A unified backing of projects by Maui lawmakers will be important, Keith-Agaran said. “I think there are certainly things, of course, if the entire Maui delegation supports it, I’m going to support it as well,” he said.
Keith-Agaran said his district priorities include accelerating the rebuilding of Kahului Elementary School classrooms destroyed in a Nov. 24 blaze that police allege was the work of a 17-year-Kahului boy now charged with first-degree arson, three counts of second-degree burglary and criminal property damage. The fire caused $1.2 million in damage and closed the school for more than a week.
The lawmaker said he also wants to ensure that Maui Memorial Medical Center, now being operated by the Kaiser Permanente-affiliated Maui Health System, continues to receive adequate funding.
Aside from the operational subsidy, the system needs $6 million for facilities, repairs, renovations and upgrades, he said.
West and South Maui Sen. Roz Baker, who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Consumer Protection and Health, said she has her eye on making sure the Lahaina bypass highway is completed “appropriately,” with people’s concerns being “heard and respected.”
Although state highways officials have maintained the state would advance only roadway repairs and maintenance — not new roads — Baker said she’d like to get funding for the northern phase of the bypass from Keawe Street mauka of the Lahaina Cannery Mall and Lahaina Gateway shopping center to north of Puukolii Road in Kaanapali.
To generate funding for Maui highways projects, Baker said she’s proposing a bill to increase the state rental vehicle surcharge to $4.50 per vehicle per day. (Now, the surcharge is $3 per day.) The additional money would go into the state’s highways special fund, and it would be credited to the county in which the funds were generated, she said.
Highway funds from vehicle registrations, gas taxes and licensing fees have not kept up, she said.
“The highway special fund is broke,” she added.
The measure has great potential to generate highway funds for Maui, she said. “I’m told that on Maui we have more rental cars than Honolulu.”
People using rental cars on island roads is “creating part of the problem,” she said, and it makes sense to have visitors help pay for roads.
West Maui Rep. Angus McKelvey said he would introduce a companion bill to increase the state rental vehicle surcharge in the House of Representatives.
McKelvey said Neighbor Island communities in need of roadway improvements are on the losing end of competition for funding with districts on Oahu. The state Department of Transportation has “completely remodified or canceled major projects on the Neighbor Islands,” he said.
McKelvey has weighed in to a dispute with the Transportation Department over its plans to remove a northbound lane on Honoapiilani Highway at its Keawe Street intersection as part of development of the Lahaina bypass and its northern terminus at the intersection. Last week, the lawmaker asked Gov. David Ige to call a “timeout” on work at the intersection to consider alternatives.
State highways officials defended their plans and attacked what they called McKelvey’s “inaccurate statements.” DOT Deputy Director Ed Sniffen said the bypass highway’s 2.6-mile extension from Hokiokio Place to “cut mountain” near Olowalu would protect the highway by moving it inland and offer another route to motorists heading toward Kaanapali. He maintained the state’s plans would increase efficiency of traffic movement on the highways.
State transportation officials said motorists unable to move into the single northbound lane could — after being forced to make a right turn on Keawe Street — turn around on one of Keawe’s side streets or re-enter Honoapiilani Highway through one of the bypass’s southern connector roads, such as Lahainaluna Road or Hokiokio Place.
Ige’s office released a statement Friday. It said: “The governor has asked his administrative director, Ford Fuchigami, the former state Department of Transportation director, to work with various stakeholders in the community to find a solution and determine the best way to move this forward.”
Baker said the bypass project’s environmental impact statement dates back to 2002 or 2003 when the Lahaina Gateway didn’t exist and when there weren’t businesses and housing in the area. She said she plans to introduce a bill to require state officials to return to communities to give residents an opportunity to have input on updating plans based on possibly out-of-date environmental studies.
On the long-awaited Kihei high school, Baker said the Ige administration is seeking $88 million to build the campus in the state’s fiscal 2019 budget, which runs from July 1 to June 30, 2019. And, if Department of Education officials can’t get the full amount, they’re requesting $42 million for construction, she said. (This would be on top of $63 million that lawmakers appropriated last year for the school’s design and construction.)
Baker said she’d try to get the full $88 million for fiscal 2019. “I’ll do my damnedest to get it to them,” she said.
For two years, Goodfellow Bros. has had a contract in place to do site improvements for the high school, but Baker said she has not seen a notice to proceed. The state plans to make Kihei high a “showcase school” with environmentally conscious “green” features, she said.
And, now, with the project’s current design, “I think we finally have something everybody agrees to,” she said.
Baker and McKelvey said they’re working with the Hawaii Housing Finance & Development Corp. to help residents of the Front Street Apartments maintain their affordable rental units.
In exchange for state and federal tax credits and state tax money to develop the property, the building owner pledged to keep the units affordable to low-income residents for 50 years. But now, the owner is trying to use a 2012 Internal Revenue Service rule to convert the complex’s 142 units to market-priced rentals.
McKelvey said he wants to see the issue brought “screaming front and center” and raise the possibility of public acquisition from eminent domain or requiring the payment of county property taxes at higher market rates.
“We can’t allow projects serving that (low income) economic group to be turned into market-rate rentals,” Baker said. “We don’t have enough housing. We can’t lose what affordables we have.”
Meanwhile, education was on the minds of Sen. J. Kalani English and Rep. Lynn DeCoite. Both represent East Maui, Molokai and Lanai, and English’s district includes Upcountry Maui.
DeCoite said a student-weighted formula for funding schools “drastically” affects schools in her rural tri-isle district.
“We are looking at doing a formal review of the ways the funds are actually being used/allocated so then we know how best to address the situation,” she said.
English said that in the early 2000s, the DOE introduced the weighted student formula concept, giving schools funding based on their enrollment, but he maintained the practice isn’t fair.
“The bottom line is that my schools in Hana, Molokai and Lanai are not getting adequate funding because the population is so small,” he said. “We have significantly less students, and on the weighted formula, they don’t get the monies they need.”
For years, English has been introducing bills to “either exempt these schools from the formula and give them straight formula funding or address the formula.” Those bills haven’t succeeded, and English — along with the Hawaii State Teachers Association — has asked the Legislative Reference Bureau to study the issue and come up with recommendations.
“The actual cost of running a school in a remote area is a lot higher,” he said. “Just because they live in a rural area doesn’t mean they get a lesser education. It should be equal. Under the old system, you got what you needed to operate.”
English has infrastructure issues as well.
“For me, it’s maintaining the viability of the Hana Highway, maintaining the low-lying airports and also maintaining the very remote places like on Molokai, the Kamehameha V Highway from Halawa Valley into town and other areas,” he said.
English said he believes the increased frequency of landslides on Hana Highway stems from climate change and global warming.
“People just think, ‘Well, the land is soaked (from rain),’ what’s happening is because of the ocean level rising. It’s actually cut in and destabilized the bottom,” he said.
Last year, Oahu rail transit funding was overhanging everything, English said. And, it took a special session to cobble together a $2.4 billion bailout package that included a 13-year increase in the statewide hotel room tax from 9.25 to 10.25 percent.
Now, lawmakers can turn to other matters, he said.
“The main goal for the Neighbor Island legislators is we don’t pay for the rail. That’s our collective main goal . . . and allow Oahu to do it as they wish,” English said. “But we don’t pay for it.”
Debate over rail funding set off alarms with Neighbor Island county councils, including the Maui County Council, when counties’ share of transient accommodation tax revenue was tapped to help pay for rail. That plan was eventually abandoned in lieu of an increase in the tax for rail.
However, Souki said he’ll introduce a bill to allocate the TAT, also known as the hotel room tax, based on the number of hotel rooms in each county.
“It will be very good for Maui County,” he said, adding that he’d propose to make the formula permanent but with cost-of-living increases.
Rep. Justin Woodson, who represents Kahului, Old Sand Hills and Maui Lani residents at the Capitol, said he’s eyeing legislation to develop more affordable housing.
Last year, the Legislature appropriated a little less than $1 million to the Ka Hale A Ke Ola Homeless Resource Centers to increase capacity. The measure called for building “micro-units,” which would be one-third to half of the cost of building regular housing, he said. And, building less expensive housing may prove to be a model for more much-needed housing.
Woodson added that the Legislature is looking at streamlining regulations to make it easier for developers to build affordable housing.
And, as chairman of the House Education Committee, Woodson said he’ll re-introduce a bill to help Hawaii students receive free college tuition for four years. The measure failed to pass last year.
The lawmaker said he’d like to see the University of Hawaii at Manoa and UH-Hilo included in a “Hawaii Promise” program in which state community colleges awarded scholarships covering two years of tuition to students with unmet financial needs.
Another bill Woodson is considering would give full-time teachers $500 per month to pay for rent or a mortgage to help offset Hawaii’s high cost of living.
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