- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 21, 2015

HONOLULU (AP) - The Hawaii Legislature has begun its 2015 session with plans to tackle a tight budget and issues including providing affordable housing and improving patients’ access to medical marijuana.

As the Senate and House opened their sessions on Wednesday morning, leaders spoke about increasing government accountability.

In her opening remarks, Senate President Donna Mercado Kim pledged to bring transparency and accountability to the legislative process. She announced she would propose the establishment of an office of the inspector general to investigate complaints alleging fraud, waste, abuse or corruption.

“Government officials should be held accountable for broken promises, miscalculations and bloated assumptions,” Kim said.

Kim also said she would ask Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, to begin discussions about whether counties should be allowed to enact a half-percent tax that would be earmarked for housing, transportation, road improvements and enforcement of transient vacation rentals.

“The counties are urged to step up enforcement of transient vacation rental ordinances,” Kim said. “The state and counties are losing millions of dollars in TAT and GET revenues, money which we cannot afford to ignore.”

The Legislature faces millions of dollars in requests. The Hawaii Health Systems Corporation, University of Hawaii and Hawaii Health Connector are asking for financial help, but Gov. David Ige has already said there’s no extra money in the state’s two-year, $25.7 billion budget.

The County of Honolulu plans to request an extension of a rail tax to support Oahu’s financially challenged rapid transit project, an appeal that could be copied by other counties.

“We must promise no new taxes,” said Sen. Sam Slom, the lone Republican in the Senate. “We can’t throw good money after bad money.”

As Slom delivered his remarks, his fellow lawmakers requested a brief recess, noticing the senator appeared ill. Slom, who is diabetic, finished his speech, then was examined by emergency medical technicians who determined he was just dehydrated, said Slom’s legislative aide, Kathy Higa. He had a bottle of water and was fine, she said.

On the rail tax, Ige said it may be premature to consider an extension since it will be several years before it expires.

Kim also suggested that Hawaii should transition to all-mail elections, which she believes would boost voter turnout.

“It’s definitely something we should look into, and I think any efforts to make it easy for people to vote would be well worth it,” Ige said.

House Speaker Joe Souki emphasized the importance of providing affordable health care for everyone. He urged his fellow lawmakers to think “outside the box” for solutions to the state hospital system’s financial problems to ensure that the facilities remain open to treat patients.

“Maui Memorial and Hawaii Pacific Health are looking at a public-private partnership that could improve health care on Maui and generate savings for taxpayers,” Souki said. “It behooves us to study this opportunity carefully and look at legislation for this and other potential partnerships.”

Souki also shared the goal of ensuring that patients who wish to be treated with medical marijuana have access to the drug.

“Yes, it is legal in Hawaii. But there is no legal access to it,” Souki said. “The time has come to fix this contradiction.”

There will be proposals that aim to regulate genetically modified foods and to control the use of pesticides, issues that drew heated debate during last year’s session.

Lawmakers also may consider bills to help residents of Hawaii’s Big Island who are dealing with lava. One proposal calls for insurance reform so homeowners who may live in the path of the lava don’t have their policies canceled.

The House also is saying goodbye to Rep. Mele Carroll, who announced Tuesday that she would resign due to health problems. Her resignation is effective Feb. 1. Starting that day, the Democratic Party has 30 days to submit names of potential replacements. Gov. David Ige will have 60 days from Feb. 1 to choose a successor.

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