Hawaii lawmakers set to tackle GMO labeling, increasing minimum wage

Hawaii lawmakers set to tackle GMO labeling, increasing minimum wage

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - An anti-paparazzi celebrity privacy law and proposals to decriminalize marijuana were among the bills that kept lawmakers busy last session – both made headlines, neither became law.  Several Representatives and Senators who spoke to Hawaii News Now say they don't think either will be major issues during the 2014 Legislative Session, which convenes Tuesday.

One topic that is expected to be widely discussed is the use of genetically modified organisms.  In recent months, counties across Hawai'i have taken up the GMO issue.  Now all eyes are on the State Capitol.

"Last session we introduced a resolution to urge Congress and FDA to require labeling, and I think that's the correct route to go because of the economies of scale.  If Hawai'i were just to choose to say we're going to require labeling, I don't know what the impacts on our cost of living would be," explained Representative Derek Kawakami, (D – Hanalei, Princeville, Kapa'a).

Kawakami's Kaua'i district has become a battleground of sorts after three agro-chemical companies sued to block an anti-GMO law.

The House Consumer Protection Committee Vice Chair says the lawsuit wasn't unexpected.  He helped to open dialogue between the biotech companies and the Governor's office prior to the legal challenge, saying one of the results of that discussion is the "Good Neighbor Program" that's currently being implemented.

"We felt that it was necessary to have something in place so that at least there are some protections, that there's some disclosure, that there's some agreement to buffer zones.  I'm not saying it's the total solution but it's a step in the right direction," Kawakami said.

The District 14 Representative says he's hoping to shift attention from bio-tech into promoting local farming and food security.

"On Kaua'i we have a dairy going in on farmland.  That's going to be a positive thing, meaning that we rely on mainland milk so much so any increase in local food production is something we should be focusing our issues on," Kawakami explained.

Last session's proposal to increase the minimum wage to $9 by 2017 failed, but Senator Clayton Hee says he's confident lawmakers will get it done this year.

"The disparity between the rich and poor grows every year and if the Legislature does not take proactive steps the disparity will grow even greater," said Hee, (D – Heeia, Laie, Waialua).

Hee will be introducing a bill to raise the minimum wage by $2.85 – to the same amount recently proposed in the U.S. Senate.

"At $10.10 a minimum wage earner will make $21,000 in a state where the average house is $685,000," Hee explained.

While Hee expects an initial "sticker shock" to his proposal, he is confident the ongoing national discussion about the necessity for a living wage will lend his measure the support it needs.

"People are poor in Hawaii because the cost of living increases and the standard of living increases, but the wage earners don't increase without intervention by the Legislature," Hee said.

Representative Cynthia Thielen believes a top priority this year should be addressing forecasted climate change.

"We can't control that because we're an island state and this is a worldwide problem but we can be prepared," described Thielen (R – Kailua, Kaneohe).

She's working on a measure to task the Lieutenant Governor with heading an advisory board to come up with solutions to address and adapt to forecasted beach erosion as a result of anticipated sea level rise.

"Maybe it's a few decades out, but you cannot wait until your feet are wet to be dealing with the issue of sea level rise," Thielen said.

The 50th District Representative says it's especially necessary for the state to work with the counties who are approving building permits because where development happens is a key issue that needs to be addressed, which is why she has a proposal to protect and preserve sand dunes.

"When homeowners are allowed to bulldoze down a sand dune and move their construction further makai that destroys the integrity of that beach, and I think that's something we ought to guard against.  I don't know why we haven't done it before, but it's certainly time now," Thielen explained.

It is an election year so many of the more controversial issues, like physician assisted suicide which has come up in the past, aren't anticipated.  Plus, since the state posted a record $844 million budget surplus, experts say it is unlikely gambling proposals will get introduced.

"Although there is a $844 million carry-over balance, there is about $10 billion in unfunded liability.  So if you're looking at your own personal expenses, you got to look at how much debt you're carrying as opposed to how much money you have in savings," explained House Finance Committee Chair Sylvia Luke (D – Punchbowl, Pauoa, Nu'uanu).

Representative Luke says whether the state is sitting on $0 or hundreds of millions of dollars in surplus, lawmakers are still going to be fiscally responsible and make budget decisions based on whether financing is warranted or unwarranted.

"Four or five years ago,  we had a pretty good record amount of surplus and that was gone in two years and then we looked at a deficit situation and we looked into furlough Fridays and cutting programs and we learned from those experiences and we want to ensure that doesn't happen again," Luke said.

Last year, legislators set aside $217 million for unfunded liability and an additional $100 million for the hurricane and rainy day fund.

For a complete 2014 Legislative Session calendar of events or more information on who represents your district, head to: http://www.capitol.hawaii.gov/

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