2016 legislative session kicks off, with lawmakers pledging to tackle big problems

Published: Jan. 20, 2016 at 10:47 PM HST|Updated: Jan. 21, 2016 at 12:09 AM HST
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A large crowd attended the session.
A large crowd attended the session.

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - State lawmakers laid out their top priorities Wednesday morning as the 2016 legislative session was called to order.

"We're fortunate at this moment to be a part of a body that existed long before us and will exist long after us and we need to make the most of that responsibility while we have it. Hawaii's problems are big enough that we need everyone's solutions," said House Minority Leader Beth Fukumoto Chang.

This year, state lawmakers have identified homelessness and a lack of affordable housing as some of the most pressing concerns Hawaii is facing. The issues took center stage on opening day of the 2016 legislative session.

"There has been a lot of disconnect between what's going on in the state and what's going on in the counties and between what the different agencies are doing. So what we're trying to do is pull everything together and if there needs to be policy changes along the way, we're going to be tackling that," said House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke.

"Once we have the shelters and transitional programs, there has to be somewhere for them to go and so we need to develop affordable rental units and affordable sale units and we're going to work to make sure we identify projects on each and every island," said Senate President Ronald Kouchi.

Preventing and providing for those who have fallen into homelessness isn't the only priority lawmakers plan to address over the next five months.

Other issues were raised -- including Oahu's now $7 billion dollar rail transit project.

"The Legislature made this never-ending drain on taxes possible and is an enabler to the biggest and worst public project in Hawai'i's history. There is no accountability while roads, sewers and water delivery continue to break down," said Senate Minority Leader Sam Slom.

Improving access to healthcare was also mentioned as a top priority. One proposal could require all doctors practicing in Hawaii to treat Medicare and Medicaid patients in order to get their license renewed every two years.

"We cannot continue the way we're going with people not being treated because they don't have the income, that is wrong," said House Speaker Joesph Souki.

In previous years, attention has centered on attempts to legalize gambling or marijuana -- both of which always come up and fail.

"We're at the dispensary stage now and that's where we are. We're not looking at anything else," Speaker Souki said when asked about the potential for lawmakers making marijuana legal.

"Hawaii and Utah are the only two states that don't allow gambling, but Speaker put it well a few days ago -- he said we'll look at the lottery. Just the lottery nothing else, and proceeds go to education and healthcare," said Representative John Mizuno.

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