- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 17, 2017

HONOLULU (AP) - Hawaii lawmakers are pushing for energy independence, easing the high cost of living and improving working conditions in the state’s commercial fishing fleet as they begin the 2017 legislative session.

They’re also facing tough battles over money.

The state ended last year with money in the bank, but the budget proposed by Gov. David Ige relies on deficit spending as revenue is projected to come in lower than expected. The budget is already stretched tight by growing unfunded liabilities for public pensions and retiree health care costs, and lawmakers are concerned about the ballooning cost of building Honolulu’s rail transit project.

“The state finances will be a big project for us, especially if you consider the tax revenue forecast and the big ticket items, such as the unfunded liability, infrastructure costs and the rail project,” said Rep. Scott Saiki, House majority leader.

The rail line, which is supposed to go from Oahu’s west side into parts of Honolulu, has cost estimates ranging up to $11 billion.

In the fishing industry, lawmakers are exploring what the state can do to help after an Associated Press investigation that found fishermen on commercial boats in Honolulu have been confined to vessels for years without basic labor protections.

“If there’s anything we can do to stop human trafficking or unfair labor in the state, we have to do it,” said state Rep. Kaniela Ing, chairman of the Ocean, Marine Resources and Hawaiian Affairs Committee. “We’re under a moral obligation to create a system that wouldn’t allow this to happen.”

Ing is floating a bill to require fishing boat operators to use licensed commercial agencies to hire workers.

The strategy would allow the state to gain access to employment contracts between the agencies and fishermen, which would permit periodic audits to make sure the boats are in compliance with those contracts, he said.

State leaders will continue to look for solutions to the homelessness crisis and affordable housing shortage. Sen. Josh Green plans to introduce a bill to classify homelessness as a medical condition, hoping Medicaid funds could then be used to pay rent.

“The moment you do that, it opens up all kinds of possibilities,” Green said.

Ing is proposing a series of bills aimed at redistributing income from Hawaii’s wealthiest residents to those most in need. A pair of his bills would cap CEO wages at 20 times the average salary of employees and create a surcharge for companies in which 50 percent or more of the employees get social assistance payments.

“It’s my belief that if you rely on the government to pay your employees, you’re anything but a success,” Ing said.

Ing wants Hawaii to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour in 2019 and $22 an hour by 2022. Minimum wage in Hawaii is now $9.25 an hour and set to increase to $10.10 next year.

House Majority Leader Scott Saiki said that proposal is likely to face a battle because the latest changes to the minimum wage aren’t fully implemented, so “it may be premature to consider raising it again.”

Hawaii is a leader in renewable energy with its goal of getting 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045. Advocates are pushing proposals to accelerate the transition.

One way is by increasing the use of storage, so the Blue Planet Foundation and others will propose tax credits or incentives for installing batteries to speed adoption of the technology that is falling in price.

“The faster we can roll that out, the faster we can reduce cost for consumers and avoid the need to build additional power plants and other grid upgrades,” said Rep. Chris Lee, chairman of the House Committee on Energy and Environmental Protection.

Renewable energy advocates also will be pushing for a transition to clean fuel in the ground transportation sector.

Sen. Lorraine Inouye plans to introduce a bill to reduce state tax credits for installing solar panels, and she’s planning a bill to enhance state control over geothermal development.

In health, there will be a bipartisan effort to introduce legislation to curtail opioid abuse along with a push for legislation to give patients access to aid in dying, led by former lobbyist John Radcliffe, who has cancer.

The group wants terminally ill adults to be able to request a doctor’s prescription for medication they can take to die peacefully. Several states already have such legislation.

“I’m not sure at this point what the support level is for it in the House, as well as in the general public,” Saiki said. “That’s the kind of a bill that really needs to go to a public hearing.”

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