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Hawaii’s legislators push through bills; session winds down

May 1, 2013
By ANITA HOFSCHNEIDER , The Associated Press

HONOLULU - The Hawaii Legislature spent a full day Tuesday voting on dozens of bills to send to Gov. Neil Abercrombie, including a new loan program to encourage green energy and a plan to stimulate entrepreneurship.

The push to vote on most of the remaining bills comes with only one more session Thursday before the 2013 session ends.

The Legislature unanimously passed a $23.8 billion budget that provides millions for capital improvement projects and the state's unfunded liabilities. Lawmakers also approved budgets for the Judiciary and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

On another funding issue, both chambers agreed to make permanent a 9.25 percent tax on hotel rooms and other transient accommodations. Abercrombie and the Hawaii Tourism Authority, the main agency that promotes the state to visitors, praised the passage of the bill.

The authority said the bill strikes a delicate balance between competing with other destinations and asking visitors to spend discretionary income. The bill also directs funds toward a museum for Hawaiian music and dance at the convention center in Honolulu.

Maui County officials were not totally enamored with the bill, which made permanent a $93 million cap on the four counties' share of the room tax revenue. The cap was put in place to deal with the budget crisis brought on by the recent recession.

Maui County receives about $21 million from room tax revenue, and county leaders argued that the cap was meant to be temporary and that the counties should share proportionally in increases in revenues.

Both chambers approved the governor's initiative to provide loans to help people afford solar panels and other green energy equipment.

Lawmakers also passed Abercrombie's $6 million plan to provide resources for entrepreneurs and encourage innovation. Abercrombie originally asked for $20 million for the proposal.

The Legislature also approved Abercrombie's proposal for a new school readiness program to help late-born 4-year-olds from low-income families. Lawmakers decided to set aside less than half of the funding Abercrombie requested, but advocates said this is a building block for a more expansive early childhood education program in the future.

The final bill sets aside $1.16 million in administrative costs and $6 million in subsidies to help 900 children. It expands the state's existing Preschool Open Doors program in the Department of Human Services.

The Legislature also passed a bill proposing a constitutional amendment to allow the state to fund a full-fledged preschool program.

In addition, lawmakers passed a bill requiring background checks for people who bring guns to Hawaii from out of state and a pilot project for developing school lands to raise money for school infrastructure repairs.

The House and Senate didn't agree on all initiatives. Lawmakers disagreed on a proposal to extend the state journalist shield law. The Senate approved a version that made the law permanent but limited its scope. The House chose to amend the measure to keep the existing law for two more years. The law will likely expire in June because both chambers have to agree on one version in order for the bill to pass.

House lawmakers continued debating and voting on bills into the evening Tuesday. Senators ended their session in the afternoon, still a few hours later than expected.

As the Senate session adjourned, state Sen. Sam Slom gave a final comment.

"God bless the process, God help the taxpayers," he said.



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