LAHAINA - The Hawaii Legislature convenes on Jan. 16, and it promises to be a packed session with decisions ranging from the selection of a new Speaker of the House to solving the challenge of unfunded pension liabilities and finding the money to pay for any collective bargaining settlements that will come to the legislature.
Against this backdrop, Sixth District Sen. Roz Baker and Tenth District Rep. Angus McKelvey met with interested West Side residents at the West Maui Senior Center on Tuesday, Dec. 11.
Unlike some areas in the county, when Lahaina residents are asked by elected officials for their opinions and views, they do not pass up the opportunity - even if it's the holiday season. This meeting was no exception.
Lahaina resident Peggy Robertson asked West Maui lawmakers why the state school board doesn’t hold meetings on Maui. PHOTO BY TOM BLACKBURN-RODRIGUEZ.
Topics discussed at the two-hour meeting included food security, renewable energy, foreclosure laws, access to affordable health care, the location of the new Maui jail, safe routes to schools, teacher healthcare costs, ongoing improvements to Honoapiilani Highway, a lack of state school board meetings on Maui, a Hawaii state lottery, Mala Wharf and Lahaina Harbor management issues, reef protection and housing developments.
McKelvey began the meeting with what he thought would be subjects that might be at the top of the legislature's list in 2013. Chief among these for him is pension reform.
"If we don't get a handle on our pension liability within the next five years, we could be in trouble," he said.
He also spoke about the governor's initiative on food security for the state. It is designed to look at state land and water resources and how they might be used to get people into farming and build equity in their farms.
Baker, speaking from her position as chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce and Consumer Protection, told the group that she is going to focus efforts on ensuring that people are aware of the benefits available to them under the President's Affordable Health Care Act, and that transitions to affordable health care are as seamless as possible.
"Right now," she said, "somewhere between 9 and 10 percent of people in Hawaii are without health insurance." That means they may be going to the emergency room, which is the most expensive form of health care provided.
Baker also said she and McKelvey will work on getting more money for school repairs and portable classrooms for Princess Nahienaena Elementary School.
Both officials are keeping their fingers crossed and looking forward to the opening of the next phase of the Lahaina Bypass, which will relieve congestion on Lahainaluna Road by providing another option for school and residential traffic.
In response to a question regarding work on Honoapiilani Highway, McKelvey said that the state Department of Transportation (DOT) is preparing to move the highway inland because of erosion issues.
The department had to stop and address the problem of sediment flowing into the ocean as a result of the repair work. DOT is working on building a sloping sea wall that will grab the sand and leave a sloping beach at the end of the process, instead of contributing to more beach erosion that undermines the highway.
Community advocate Peggy Robertson questioned increases in the costs paid by teachers for their health care insurance and the lack of state school board meetings on Maui.
McKelvey noted that last year, the legislature set aside $300 million to help with health care benefit costs. He and Baker both emphasized that the role of the legislature is to fund the agreements reached by the governor and collective bargaining units.
"My philosophy is to stay out of it (collective bargaining), so that we have one person negotiating for the state," McKelvey said.
Baker agreed, commenting that " the role of the legislature is to fund what the governor and the teachers decide upon."
Concerning meetings of the state school board on Maui, Baker said, "My biggest concern is that the chair of the board does not see the value of having the board come to Maui like they used to do. I think they should come to Maui, and I don't agree with that decision."
The perennial issue of some type of gaming or lottery was also raised. In McKelvey's view, the only type of gaming that might generate legislative interest is one based on the Internet; he doubts any gaming laws would advance in the legislature.
Clifton Akiyama wanted to know why bathrooms at Mala Wharf and Lahaina Harbor are not open early in the morning, so that they would be available to fishermen and other users. McKelvey said he will check with the harbor master.
Richard Snyder raised a hot button issue when he asked why reef protection efforts concentrated at Honolua Bay and the immediate surrounding areas could not be extended down into Lahaina as well.
"It comes down to money," McKelvey responded candidly. "Senator (Daniel) Inouye wanted to start somewhere, and the hope is that it can be expanded as funds become available. Hopefully, the data that comes out of it can help with expanding the study area."
Marie Minichino asked Baker if there are any plans to reinstate the foreclosure moratorium.
"People have run out of funds to fight in court. People are hanging on by their fingernails," she said.
According to Minichino, "Hawaii is number four in foreclosures in the nation. People have been foreclosed on and not even know it and... having their homes sold online," she added.
Baker responded, "We are not going to have another foreclosure moratorium. We have put into place things that address the situation. The only reason we had a moratorium was to give us a chance to make changes in our laws."
Wrapping up the meeting, Stuart Kahan questioned the planning behind a housing development proposed by the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation near Mala Wharf.
"Mala Wharf is being attacked," he said, "in the sense that where we had a large portion of land, now we are talking about 200 units of housing the current road will not accommodate 200 units, plus units on the mauka side."
The meeting ended at 7:30 p.m., with plenty of donuts left over for the ride home and tasty late night munching on a windy winter's night in Lahaina.
To contact Sen. Baker, call (808) 586-6070 or e-mail senbaker@ capitol.hawaii.gov. Rep. McKelvey may be reached at (808) 586-6160 or email@example.com.