- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii lawmakers have several issues on their agenda as they get set to report for the 2014 legislative session Wednesday.

Neil Abercrombie’s office says the Democratic governor’s top priority will be increasing reserve funds in the state budget, rather than spending a record $844 million surplus on new programs.

Health care and education funding debates are expected to divide legislators. And other priorities include bills that would legalize marijuana for recreational use, increase the state’s minimum wage and direct officials to plan for a significant sea level rise.

These debates will take shape as lawmakers, and Abercrombie, face election challenges in November.

Democrats will have the advantage going into the four-month session. All but one state senator are Democrats, and Republicans hold only seven of the 51 seats in the state House.

Here are five things to know ahead of the upcoming session:

- BUDGET: Abercrombie’s deputy chief of staff, Blake Oshiro, says the governor wants to build the state’s budget reserves and put money into underfunded employee pensions and retiree health care.

Such action could build on the state’s record $844 million surplus, which Abercrombie considers and essential cushion in case the state’s economy contracts or grows at a slower than projected pace.

- Republican response: GOP state Sen. Sam Slom says the state has a surplus only on paper. He says the money isn’t accessible because it’s dedicated for future expenses.

“I would suggest to you that there’s not $844 million lying around,” Slom said.

If such a surplus did exist, it’s a sign people are paying too much in taxes and fees, he said.

Slom said Hawaii should focus on attracting businesses.

- Democratic response: Oshiro said bond agencies responded well when the state previously put money toward hurricane relief and rainy day funds.

Solid credit ratings are good for state government because it makes it cheaper to do things like finance long-term infrastructure projects, he said.

Oshiro said lawmakers will favor the approach so the state can withstand future fluctuations in the economy.

“It’ll put us on the right path toward fiscal sustainability,” he said.

- EDUCATION: Hawaii is one of only a few states without publicly funded preschool, and lawmakers this session will consider getting off of that list.

Creating a statewide preschool program for would cost about $4.5 million. It will be more of a priority this year to expand public school access to 4-year-olds, since many are not eligible to attend kindergarten this year after the state changed its birthdate requirements.

Abercrombie has proposed 32 preschool classrooms across 30 schools.

- Republican response: GOP lawmakers say the plans aren’t about education, they’re about publicly funding childcare. Slom said preschool matters less if education later on isn’t up to par.

State Rep. Aaron Johanson said if the state really wants to further education it should make kindergarten mandatory, something he’s proposing in the House.

- Democratic response: Oshiro says the proposal is pared back from more ambitious, expensive plans, but still meets fundamental and practical needs of children and parents.

- HEALTH CARE: Lawmakers will have to determine the future of Hawaii’s new health insurance exchange.

The exchange has nearly $200 million in federal grants and a goal of becoming self-sufficient by 2015. But fewer than 2,200 people signed up for individual plans as of Dec. 28, according to figures released this week by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The exchange has had several problems, most notably software troubles that delayed the start of open enrollment by two weeks. Its executive director stepped down in December, citing personal reasons and saying she was not asked to resign.

Some state officials say the Hawaii Health Connector, set up as a nonprofit, won’t be able to sustain itself under its current model of charging insurers a 2 percent fee on plans sold through the exchange.

The state could mandate more legislators on the exchange’s board, or potentially absorb the exchange into another agency, Oshiro said.

- MIDTERM ELECTIONS: Several state lawmakers are looking to move up, facing other Democrats in primaries. Sen. David Ige, chairman of the Senate finance committee, is challenging Abercrombie for governor.

Meanwhile, Rep. Mark Takai, Sen. William Espero and Senate President Donna Mercado Kim - all Democrats - are running for a U.S. House seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, who’s challenging U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz in a Democratic primary in August.

Business as usual for politicians, Kim said.

“It’s election year every other year for somebody - somebody’s always running,” she said.

- OTHER KEY ISSUES: Lawmakers have filed paperwork on bills to legalize marijuana for casual use, raise the minimum wage and direct the islands to plan sea levels to rise significantly by 2050.

Kim said she also expects a debate about genetically-modified foods to be “front and center” since counties have begun taking up the issue of whether they should force labels on products.

Slom said he plans to introduce bills that would allow voter initiatives, referendums and recalls and impose term limits.


Oskar Garcia can be reached on Twitter at https://twitter.com/oskargarcia

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