By TREENA SHAPIRO
HONOLULU (AP) - The state Legislature plans a low-key opening day Wednesday while lawmakers look ahead to serious issues facing them during the 2012 session, such as economic recovery plans, job growth and funding for medical services.
Party leaders in both the House and Senate place high priority on job-related measures aimed at getting Hawaii residents back to work and stabilizing the state's fragile economic recovery.
"The emphasis will be on job creation, maintaining jobs and trying to alleviate some of the burdens on small business," said House Finance Chairman Marcus Oshiro, D-Wahiawa.
To that end, House Majority Leader Pono Chong wants to avert a scheduled unemployment tax increase equivalent to roughly $500 per employee. Capping the tax at its current rate should help employers keep job costs predictable and stable, as well as keep people employed, he said.
"We also have a whole host of differing measures, whether it's economic development in infrastructure, renewable energy, or things of that nature," said Chong, D-Maunawili-Kaneohe.
Chong said lawmakers will also push to infuse new funding into Hawaii's health care system to support critical medical providers following Hawaii Medical Center's bankruptcy and closures of its Liliha and Ewa hospitals, which has left many people scrambling for medical services on Oahu.
Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria, D-Downtown-Waikiki, outlined key priorities for the Senate majority. "I don't think it's any secret it's about job creation," he said.
A significant piece of the Senate package is an aggressive $500 million capital improvement project package that would create jobs while addressing repair and maintenance backlogs at public schools and other government buildings.
Other construction jobs could come from modernization projects at the airports and harbors. To ensure this work can be done, retooling government information services to make public works permitting and processing more efficient is critical, Galuteria said.
These initiatives lead into another priority, meeting the needs of the people of Hawaii and investing in children, Galuteria said, "If we bring in money and put people to work, it will shore up the safety net."
Working on job creation at broad levels could have a positive economic impact statewide.
"At the end game, what this really does is put small businesses to work, too," Galuteria said. "We know that the big guys are going to get theirs. No problem about that. The trickle-down effect into the small businesses is what really excites us."
House Minority Leader Gene Ward said the eight House Republicans are similarly focused on seeing Hawaii return to positive economic growth. Job creation, offering tax credits to employers who hire unemployed people and offering a procurement preference for recently returned armed service veterans are all included in the minority package.
Ward, R-Kalama Valley-Hawaii Kai, said House Republicans also support tax credits for residential homeowners who want to renovate, as well as measures to protect community members from cybercrime.
Several gambling legalization bills remain alive from last session or have been newly introduced, but House Speaker Calvin Say said lawmakers will likely look to other ways of generating revenue before considering gaming legislation. Last year, a gambling bill was recommitted to the House Judiciary Committee because it lacked the votes necessary to move it forward.
"I must say I'm very proud of the House because we did entertain gaming last year and a couple bills did get to other subject committees - one for Hawaiian Home Lands and the other for the single site for a casino in Waikiki," said Say, D-St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise.
Galuteria suspects creation of a task force or committee to study legalized gambling would be more likely to pass this session than any bills authorizing gaming without additional study.