- Associated Press - Wednesday, January 18, 2017

HONOLULU (AP) - Lei-draped lawmakers sang Hawaiian songs and snapped photos as the Hawaii Legislature began its 2017 session, and they vowed to tackle homelessness, housing, traffic and the issue of aid in dying.

Community members chanted and pounded taro into paiai - a Hawaiian staple food - outside, highlighting the importance of preserving cultural traditions.

Hawaii House Speaker Joseph Souki talked about the need to address heavy traffic. He said he wants to study whether it would make sense to install tolls on roads.

“When gridlock chokes our daily commute and threatens the efficient operation of our businesses, our daily life, we resist dramatic changes,” Souki said. “We hope lesser incremental ones will do the job. But they won’t and only serve to cost us more in the long term.”

Souki also said rail travel is the key to the future of Oahu, and the general excise tax should be extended to finance the growing cost of the rail transit project. But he also said he wants the city to chip in more money, and he said rail executives should reduce the amount of money spent on administrative costs.

Tackling rail funding also will be a priority in the Senate, President Ron Kouchi said.

“Rail, in one way or another, is going to come to a conclusion in this legislative session, and that will be certainly occupying much of the time during the session and I personally have supported rail,” Kouchi said. “I hope we find a path. But we are not close to finding that path yet, and we certainly need a lot more information for us to be able to make our final judgment on the rail issue.”

Homelessness, affordable housing and health care will continue to be at the top of the Senate’s list of priorities, he said.

Souki and Kouchi outlined their legislative priorities on the first day of the Hawaii’s 2017 session, which began Wednesday.

Kouchi, who stressed the importance of developing the state’s technology sector, recognized Chenoa Farnsworth, managing partner of Blue Startups, which provides mentoring for emerging technology companies.

“It’s important for us to build the climate to support Chenoa and people like her in their endeavors, to create that economy so we can continue to support those that are so challenged in our community,” Kouchi said.

Souki said he wants to reduce the state’s prison population by allowing people convicted of some non-violent crimes to be confined to their homes using electronic bracelets. It would revamp the prison system and reduce the cost of incarceration, he said.

Souki also highlighted the importance of privatizing Maui hospitals to improve access to health care on Hawaii’s neighbor islands.

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