Lawmakers wrap up session with big wins for schools, homelessness

Lawmakers wrap up session with big wins for schools, homelessness
(Image: Hawaii News Now)
(Image: Hawaii News Now)

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - Measures that provided millions of dollars to cool schools and build more affordable housing might have gotten the attention during the 2016 legislative session, but Hawaii lawmakers say they tackled a wide range of issues with this year's bills and budget.

Legislators consider one of their greatest achievements to be the $12 million they earmarked to address homelessness.

Unlike prior budgets, the governor's office will have the authority to decide how and where to spend the funding. Lawmakers say it was necessary to appropriate the $12 million that way to ensure the money can have a direct impact where it's needed.

"They need to react quickly. These funds need to be readily available and flexible to deal with those issues right away," said state Rep. Sylvia Luke, chairwoman of the House Finance Committee.

Luke says the immediate infusion of funding is clearly needed, not only to combat homelessness in Kakaako, where repeated enforcement is necessary to ensure encampments don't return, but also to ensure shelter space is available.

Recognizing that the lack of mental health care and services are a key factor contributing to the growing homeless population, lawmakers also committed $160 million to the Hawaii State Hospital.

"We did provide $500,000 to really start to address mental health needs with those that are chronically homeless and how we provide services and programs for them, because we realize that in many cases this is what's keeping them homeless," said state Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. "We need to get them help. That money is important."

Senators, however, were disappointed that an attempt to gr ant neighbor island psychiatrists the legal authority to prescribe medication failed in the House.

"We thought it was an important component looking at the mental health needs of our communities -- especially our rural communities that have big issues in terms of access," Tokuda said.

Legislators say it was also a top priority to ensure the initiatives they approved this year can be sustained in years to come, which is why $150 million was deposited into the state's Rainy Day Fund.

"It's making sure that if a bump in the road comes ahead, we're prepared and we don't have to do the difficult cuts that were done from 2009 to 2012 and impact our community and that we'll be able to continue to deliver our services and live within our means," said Senate President Ronald Kouchi.

Meanwhile, legislators were criticized by some this session for passing a measure that allows for the early release of non-violent offenders rather than funding additional jail space to alleviate overcrowding.

"There was money that went to Maui and the Big Island to address their situation," said Speaker of the House Joseph Souki. "Many of them are running about 200 percent with four people in a cell and sleeping under the beds and sleeping next to the latrines. They're all in bad condition."

One of the more controversial bills that passed this session will allow home-sharing sites like Airbnb to collect and pay taxes on behalf of hosts who list properties on their websites.

Opponents of the measure say ultimately it wasn't a question of just enforcing tax compliance, but whether to use the legislation as an opportunity to create stricter oversight of an industry that has led to the creation of a large number of illegal vacation rentals.

"Really the enforcement and zoning is the counties and they have to put their efforts towards that and we cannot do that for them. We respected home rule and will let the local governments address those issues how they see fit," said Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English.

Lawmakers say over the last few years, they have passed significant legislation to address the state's 100 percent renewable energy goals by 2045, including a bill this session that requires the state Department of Education to eventually produce as much electricity as it consumes.

However, they say energy will continue to be a hot topic, especially given that the Public Utilities Commission has not yet ruled on NextEra's proposal to purchase Hawaiian Electric.

"If the application is denied then I think the onus will be on the Legislature to work with the Utilities to ensure long-term viability or alternative programs so that will be a big issue next year," House Majority Leader Scott Saiki said.

On average, only 10 percent of all legislation introduced at the beginning of the session pass. All bills now head to the governor for his signature or veto.

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