- Associated Press - Tuesday, April 19, 2016

HONOLULU (AP) - Legislative leaders want to boost funding for a program that helps fund preschool for children from low-income families, and say they’ve agreed to increase the budget for the Preschool Open Doors to $10 million.

A budget committee with members from the House and Senate announced Tuesday they want to increase the program’s budget beyond the $6 million Gov. David Ige requested, which would allow an additional 600 children to participate in the program.

“Both committees definitely recognize the importance of making sure our youngest keiki (children) are ready for school regardless of where they live, their families’ ability to pay,” said Sen. Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means committee, calling the program a “great equalizer.”

The decision was announced along with other agreements reached over how to spend the state’s $13.5 billion budget for 2017.

But the House and Senate are waiting until the end to make the toughest decisions, postponing announcements on funding for homelessness services, affordable housing and money for the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands. They also haven’t agreed to fund 33 new positions in the vector control branch that fights mosquito-borne diseases like dengue fever or the Zika virus. While the Senate supported Ige’s February request to fund those positions, the House has not yet agreed, Tokuda said.

The House and Senate are also still negotiating how much money will go to many capital improvement projects throughout the islands, including a proposed $160 million for Hawaii State Hospital, $30 million for cooling schools, a new $35 million facility for overcrowded Campbell High School and funds to continue construction of a new high school in South Maui.

“We save the cookies until the end,” Tokuda said.

Funding for the financially struggling Wahiawa General Hospital is also up in the air after a plan to help the hospital by buying its parking lots was rejected by the hospital’s board of directors, according to Rep. Marcus Oshiro.

The budget bill most recently passed by the state Senate includes $13.5 billion in spending for 2017 and $12.9 billion for 2016. That includes money from the state’s general fund, bonds and all other means of financing.

The joint House and Senate committee will reconvene to announce more budget decisions on Thursday.

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