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Pandemic still central to lawmakers’ priorities

Legislative session kicks off today with focus on housing, infrastructure, economy, other issues

University of Hawaii Maui College freshman agriculture student Jordan Tavares waters a newly planted tomato seedling during a Greenhouse Nursery Management class on the Kahului campus Tuesday afternoon. State lawmakers, who convene for the start of the legislative session today, said that some of their priorities include working with UH-Maui to help meet local workforce needs. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

From improving infrastructure to boosting health care training on Maui as well as addressing the ongoing effects of the pandemic, Maui County’s state legislators will have lots to handle this legislative session, which begins today.

Among their tasks will be to vet Gov. David Ige’s budget proposal, which he released in December with an operating budget of $16.9 billion, a general fund budget of $8.7 billion and a capital improvements program budget of $1.1 billion for fiscal year 2023.

Ige has said his request is “very different” from budgets of the last two years when the state had to slash spending due to the pandemic. Given that “the economy has improved more quickly than anticipated,” he was able to increase the budget but cautioned that the state must continue to prepare for unforeseen events while launching initiatives responsive to the pandemic and restoring critical services that were previously reduced.

The governor’s supplemental budget for 2021-23 must be approved by the state Legislature.

Noting that “state coffers have more capital than anticipated,” Rep. Tina Wildberger, who represents, Kihei, Wailea and Makena, would like to invest in the state’s technology, “to bring our departments out of the dark ages.”

She referenced the recent announcement by the state Department of Health on Saturday that it will scale back its processing of COVID-19 negative test results to focus on positive cases after being overwhelmed by the number of cases awaiting processing and reporting.

“The fact that DOH doesn’t have the technological capacity, two years in, to manage testing data is shocking,” Wildberger said in a email Tuesday. “I hope the Government Reform Committee that I vice chair can address this.”

Her priorities this session include dealing with solutions to prevent future damage from major weather events in her district.

South Maui continues to recover from the Kona low storm in early December, which “illustrated many areas of vulnerability relating to our gulches and how water flow has been engineered or diverted,” said Wildberger, who is putting forward a bill to preserve local wetlands.

She added that with “Build Back Better” federal funding on its way, there are many opportunities for infrastructure improvements.

Among the lingering issues in South Maui is the new high school. Wildberger said progress is being made, but there is a “stalemate” between the state departments of Education and Transportation and the community, which wants a pedestrian underpass at Waipuilani Gulch.

“This is an important component that would connect the geographically isolated school parcel to the rest of the community,” she said.

When asked if more funding could help the project along, Wildberger said that money isn’t the issue; it’s the stalemate.

COST OF LIVING

Rep. Troy Hashimoto said that at this stage of the pandemic, the cost of living is one of the biggest issues for many families.

“With labor shortages and supply chain issues driving up costs, along with the expiration of the federal child tax credit and inflation pressures — it is a perfect storm that is brewing, making it much more difficult for working families to continue living on Maui,” said Hashimoto, whose district includes Wailuku, Waikapu, Kahakuloa and Waiehu.

While the minimum wage will be discussed this session, the reality is that the majority of a family’s paycheck goes to housing costs.

“If we can bring this large cost down, it will tremendously make a difference,” he said.

He pointed to the School Facilities Agency, created by the Legislature in 2020, that is anticipated to focus on creating teacher housing on Maui once appropriate lands are located.

Ige allocated $40 million in his budget for mainly Oahu teacher housing, but Hashimoto, the vice chairman of the House’s Housing Committee, said legislators want to make sure Neighbor Islands can also get a share of those funds.

There is also a push to extend the Ohana Zones funding, which was enacted in 2018 to provide low-income housing or shelter for homeless families along with related services such as health care and transportation.

Hashimoto said one of the project’s successes on Maui was getting the old University of Hawaii Maui College dorms renovated and providing “wrap-around support services” for the families. An additional location on Maui should be identified to house more families, he added.

In addition to housing, Hashimoto said priorities include infrastructure, which the state and county are making strategic investments in to improve.

A pilot project is ongoing at the future Waikapu Country Town site to build a regional wastewater treatment plant and to begin the process of phasing out the Kahului treatment plant. It also includes extending Waiale Road. The two projects are required if additional housing is built in the area, Hashimoto said.

This should help alleviate costs for any developer to do the upgrades and create savings, which could be used for more affordable housing and other benefits for the community.

MEETING LOCAL WORKFORCE NEEDS

Addressing the severe shortage of nurses and teachers in Maui County is also on the radar, with the possible assistance of the University of Hawaii Maui College offering more degree programs in these areas.

Central Maui Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran also wants to work more with UH-Maui College. He would like to expand training for doctors, nurses and medical technicians to either UH-MC or use UH’s University Center on Maui to collaborate with other UH campuses that offer training in the medical and health care professions.

When the Senate Ways and Means Committee visited Maui in the fall last year, members had an opportunity to speak with local businesses about their workforce needs, said Keith-Agaran, the vice chairman for the committee.

This includes good-paying technical jobs associated with the build-out of the U.S. Space Force operations at the Maui Research and Technology Park and Haleakala’s “Science City,” he said.

“Again, we need to align education and training from high school to UH-Maui College and the different trades so that these jobs can be filled by local residents, without our residents having to leave the island for the necessary training and education,” said Keith-Agaran, who represents Wailuku, Waihee and Kahului.

As for the pandemic, Keith-Agaran said that the state needs to make sure families and children have access to Wi-Fi if learning goes online again or if there is a combination of in-class and virtual learning.

He said the federal government is providing a “tremendous amount” of broadband funding and “we need to make sure that all that investment isn’t directed only to urban areas or to communities that already have access.”

Keith-Agaran acknowledged that some issues needed to be shelved in previous years due to the pandemic, but still must be addressed, including efforts to improve child care, to make the Earned Income Tax Credit refundable and to continue providing resources to spur development of more housing that is affordable for all local working families and not only to those who qualify under HUD guidelines.

State Rep. Justin Woodson, whose district includes Kahului, old Sand Hills and Maui Lani, said his priorities this session include continuing to “strengthen and support” the state Department of Education as well as addressing issues kupuna are facing.

Woodson is the chairman of the House Education Committee, which held an informational briefing with the state Department of Education Tuesday afternoon on the pandemic impacts on schools.

Rep. Angus McKelvey, who represents, West Maui, Maalaea and North Kihei, said he will work with South and West Maui Sen. Rosalyn “Roz” Baker to secure funding for the Front Street Apartments project as well as support affordable housing projects.

Other priorities include getting federal and state funds for the relocation of Honoapiilani Highway and the extension of the Lahaina Bypass south, along with finding “new and innovative ways” to protect public safety, in particular when it comes to drunk driving. McKelvey said he is introducing a bill applying civil liabilities to people convicted of driving under the influence.

McKelvey also expressed interest in child care-related bills, including implementing the use of sensory rooms in public schools for children with autism, which will provide a better educational experience for the child, he said.

He also said he supports the reintroduction of the “grandparents visitation bill” which helps grandparents estranged from families through no fault of their own to seek visitation rights through the courts, if it is in the best interest of a child.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at mtanji@mauinews.com.

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