- Associated Press - Saturday, April 26, 2014

HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii lawmakers advanced a $12 billion state budget out of committee on Friday after making tough choices about everything from capital-improvement projects to a major land preservation deal.

The budget advanced by a conference committee of Senate and House lawmakers slashed $92 million from the fiscal 2014 budget and another $65 million from 2015.

The move was one of many maneuvers at the Hawaii Legislature on a day lawmakers tackled a mountain of difficult bills, creating an atmosphere ranging from humorous to chaotic.

All bills that required funding had to move out of committees by 6 p.m. on Friday or die. Many of the toughest decisions were saved until the bitter end, when every lawmaker crowded into one conference room and they jauntily swapped seats at the table to vote on bill after bill. Everything that survived still has to be approved by both chambers.

A proposal to raise the minimum wage in Hawaii from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour over four years made it out of committee, setting Hawaii on track for its first minimum wage increase since 2007.

Sen. Clayton Hee had fought for a faster wage hike, but said he said the bill goes a long way to address the concerns of the many women and homeless people that are paid the minimum wage.

“That’s the nature of negotiations, to compromise and strike the best deal possible,” Hee said.

Gov. Abercrombie applauded the Legislature’s work on the proposal, indicating his likely approval.

“It is imperative to provide our lowest paid workers with the economic stability and security they deserve,” Abercrombie said in a statement.

On the budget, lawmakers approved $10 million in grants to about 55 groups including the Hawaii Symphony Orchestra and Volcano Art Center, but the final list of groups that got lucky was far smaller than the 260 organizations that had applied for aid.

When the session began the state was expecting a surplus of $844 million. But revenue projections were dramatically reduced in March, leaving lawmakers with nearly $500 million less than what was initially projected for next year.

Lawmakers chose to approve about $2.9 billion in capital improvement projects in fiscal year 2015 that would be funded through bonds, federal funds and other means, but they did not set aside money for those projects from the state’s general fund, according to a legislative document.

A proposal to approve $40 million in bonds to fund a historic land preservation deal at Turtle Bay Resort on Oahu’s North Shore was approved, but it remained separate from the overall state budget, Hee said.

“It doesn’t necessarily kill the bill, but it puts it at some risk, because it’s difficult to vote against a budget bill that has so many things in it, as opposed to a single bill which has a single purpose,” Hee said.

Lawmakers dealing with health-related bills had a busy day. They advanced a proposal to provide some funding to Hawaii’s troubled health insurance exchange, although the approved funding fell far below what officials from the Hawaii Health Connector had requested.

A proposal to require insurers to cover treatment for autism advanced, but it was a stripped-down version that set in motion an actuarial study but made no requirement of insurance companies.

“It’s less than we were hoping for, but we’re doing it one step at a time,” said Lorri Unumb, vice president of Autism Speaks, a non-profit organization. “The study this year, the bill next year.”

In the hearing on those health bills Friday morning, committee members laughed at their bad luck when a fire alarm interrupted a lawmaker’s speech on a bill.

Sen. Josh Green, D-Kona, said the fire alarm went off because his bill was just so hot. Everyone began filing out of the room, but it was deemed a false alarm, so they resumed their work. But then the same thing happened hours later when the committee resumed again, and an announcer over the intercom said there was an emergency.

“Yes, an emergency. There’s not enough money,” quipped Sen. Rosalyn Baker, reflecting a theme that resonated throughout the day.

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Cathy Bussewitz can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/cbussewitz

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