Hawaii lawmakers pass $12.1B budget, debate bills


HONOLULU — The Hawaii Legislature on Tuesday approved a $12.1 billion state budget that reduces spending to reflect lower revenue and wrapped up work on hundreds of bills as the session drew near its close.

After a debate ranging from space exploration to foster children, lawmakers approved final spending on programs and construction projects for fiscal 2014-15 and sent the budget to Gov. Neil Abercrombie. With the session slated to officially end Thursday, both chambers worked through the bulk of the outstanding legislation, though some key measures remain.

The budget boosts money for foster parents, seeks to pay down shortfalls in state workers’ pension funds and increases funding to the state university system.

House members passed the budget unanimously after complaining about the high cost of tuition at the University of Hawaii. That raised doubts about increases to its budget, which eventually passed.

“There’s a trend in the university budget that puts more pressure, more of a burden on our students,” said Democratic Rep. Isaac Choy, chairman of the House Higher Education Committee.

Democratic Rep. Bert Kobayashi applauded the approval of $7 million for foster parents, saying it was the first increase to their stipends in 23 years.

“We have a budget that — while thin, given the times — goes a long way to solving many of our problems,” Kobayashi said.

In the Senate, all members voted yes except the lone Republican, Sen. Sam Slom, who warned about looming deficits and unfunded state liabilities.

“We’re spending more money than we’re taking in,” Slom said. “It’s not prudent when we see the alarm signs around us.”

After state revenue projections fell, Abercrombie’s proposed budget included $1 billion in deficit spending over 2014 and 2015, said Sen. David Ige, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee. The Legislature chose to cut spending responsibly while continuing to make payments to pare down the state’s unfunded liabilities in the health and pension funds for state workers, he said.

“We face much difficulty in the future, and have chosen to not compound this by unwise or irresponsible actions taken today,” Ige said.

After the budget was approved, lawmakers turned to clearing out bills that would update Hawaii’s electric grid and stop Internet lurkers from posting nude photos without permission.

The big decisions ahead include whether to allow same-day voter registration in elections and whether to make kindergarten mandatory statewide. A historic land deal to preserve 660 acres on Oahu’s North Shore and funding to sustain Hawaii’s troubled health exchange also hang in the balance.

And if both chambers approve a minimum-wage hike, Hawaii workers will enjoy their first increase since 2007.