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”Legislature Opens Today with Festivities, Food and Flowers”

The Hawaii State Legislature opens today beginning at 10 a.m. with speeches by the House speaker, House minority leader and House majority leader, and the Senate president and Senate minority leader, as well as festivities, food and flowers.

After the speeches, which begin at 10 a.m., Hawaiian entertainers will perform for lawmakers and their guests in their respective Houses. Around noon, lawmakers will return to their offices and welcome hundreds of guests who will travel through, stopping to taste the food in each office and meet with lawmakers.

Meanwhile hundreds of flower arrangements will be delivered to the state’s 76 elected lawmakers on behalf of lobbyists, union officials, business owners and others hoping to have influence over public policy.

The festivities will wrap up in the afternoon, with lawmakers preparing for their second official day in the 60-day session. Hot topics for the session are expected to be reform of Hawaii’s public education system, tax and fee increases, regulations, gas caps, healthcare, crime, transportation (including fixed rail) and campaign finance reform.

”Honolulu Mayor, Senators, Get in Heated Debate”

Honolulu Mayor Jeremy Harris is the kind of person who keeps his cool unless he is challenged on the truthfulness of what he is saying, something that inevitably causes him to turn red in fury and start talking extremely loud in angry, accusatory tones. That was what happened yesterday as Harris was challenged by state Senators on the Ways and Means committee after he claimed his administration is fiscally responsible, has spent the most of any administration on road repair, and should be awarded more money by the state.

While the legislative session officially starts today, several legislative committees continued to meet between May of 2003 when the 2003 legislative session wrapped up and the early days of 2004 on such topics as the state budget, tourism, taxes, transportation and rules in the Senate, to name a few. Harris and mayors from Hawaii’s three other counties were at one of those hearings yesterday, asked to come forward and present their budget requests and answer questions of lawmakers at that joint Senate Ways and Means and House Finance Committee.

Mayor Harry Kim did not attend and instead sent his executive assistant, former Democrat Senator from Kau, Andy Levin. Mayors Brian Baptiste of Kauai, Alan Arakawa of Maui and Harris presented their counties budget overviews. The three neighbor island mayors embraced the legislative recommendations of the Hawaii Association of Counties, which calls for more county independence from the state in terms of revenue sharing, revenue generation and independence from the state collective bargaining laws. The chances for any of these to pass this year are just as slim as they have been for the past 15 years.

But all eyes were on Harris — the only one of the four mayors to make a slick power point presentation, in which Harris extolled the virtues of his administration’s numerous accomplishments, under his oft repeated mantra of “doing more with less.” He insisted Honolulu taxpayers really have been getting breaks in property taxes, assessments and overall tax burden, despite substantial criticism and evidence showing the contrary, including numerous tax and fee increases since he became mayor. Harris called for additional taxing authority, for a new excise tax and sales tax and a switch from the current weight-based motor vehicle tax to one based on ad valorum or value of the vehicle.

Harris was proud of the city’s bond ratings, even though city debt continues to accelerate. Surprisingly he used as a plus for his administration that he was able to drain various special funds such as the sewer fund, to operate the city budget.

Harris also had charts showing expenditures were down under his administration and productivity was up. But questioning by senators got heated after Harris, responding to recent criticism regarding road maintenance (including a 2003 national report rating Hawaii with the worst roads in the nation) and the abundance of potholes in Hawaii, swore he had spent more on road repairs than under previous administrations.

Sen. Donna Kim, D-Kalihi, vice president of the Senate and a former Honolulu City Council member, pressed the mayor on his highway maintenance figures, asking if he had the figures on road repair in writing and did he have a break down by year and function. Harris replied he did not have the information with him but would be happy to supply it. His face and attitude soured however, when Kim pressed him on the veracity of his figures compared with figures she had from Council Member Gary Okino and others. The mayor said Kim was mistaken. Her figures showed the county had been scrimping on road repairs since Harris came into office and that was the approximate cause and the reason for road disrepair on city roads — the focus of tremendous public ire. The mayor again repeated his figures and trends were correct. Kim then asked if his figures were expenditures or budgeted allocations from the Council, and the mayor was forced to admit that his figures were in fact not actual expenditures, but simply what he put in the budget. Kim read off statistics from FY1999 to present, showing that the Council had appropriated a great deal more each year then was actually expended by the city, including one year where $30 million was allocated, but only $2 million was spent on road repair by the mayor. The mayor again disagreed with Kim’s figures and looked like he wanted to be somewhere else.

But before he left, Sen. Sam Slom, R-Hawaii Kai, asked Harris what was the status of his highly controversial proposed $1 billion Bus Rapid Transit system and the availability of funding for the project. The mayor replied curtly that the project was on schedule and the funding was in place. Slom then asked the mayor about the recent federal court directive that the city administration should provide additional details about the project, costs and sources of funding. The mayor retorted hotly, “I am not going to get into a debate with you on the BRT, Sen. Slom. I said the project was on schedule.” Slom reiterated that he was asking about the court’s requirement of the city, and the mayor appearing even more agitated, replied that information will be provided by the court directed deadline in mid February. Slom tried once again to get details of the mayor’s substantiation of the project and at that point Harris bellowed “that question is inappropriate.” Slom suggested it was totally appropriate since state taxpayer money was involved and the viability of its project and financing is at issue. But the mayor declined any further comments or information. Senate Ways and Means Chair Brian Taniguchi then thanked the mayor for his presentation.

”Gov. Lingle’s Radio Show to Broadcast Live from State Capitol”

Gov. Linda Lingle, who is on KHVH Radio with morning talk show host Rick Hamada every Wednesday morning, will broadcast live from the Hawaii State Capitol this morning from 7:05 a.m. to 8 a.m., before the official opening of the state Legislature at 10 a.m.

Republicans also are rallying around Lingle at the Capitol at the show to support the governor and Republican elected officials on their main issue for 2004 — reform of Hawaii’s public school system.

The entire radio show can be heard statewide from 6 to 10 a.m. on the following radio stations:

*Oahu (KHVH 830 AM)
*Maui (KAOI 1110 AM)
*Hilo (KPUA 670 AM)
*Kauai (KONG 570 AM)

On Jan. 26, Lingle’s State-of-the-State Address will be broadcast live at 10:00 a.m. HST. View the governor’s speech on the alphabet networks or in a live Web cast at http://www.hawaii.gov/gov

”Republicans Detail State Legislative Package for 2004”

House and Senate Republican caucuses in the state Legislature released their strategy late last week for 2004: “One People, One Government, One Vision:”

While the House Republicans did not actually hand out their proposed bills, they endorsed the Senate Republican package, the governor’s bills and bills that will be put forth by the State Attorney General dealing with a crackdown on crime.

Senate Republicans did hand out their package, which started off endorsing with a resolution, legislation that Congressman Ed Case, D-Hawaii, Second District, put forward to amend the Jones Act, the federal act that requires American goods transported in the United States use American-owned vessels. Right before the press conference began, Case left the House caucus room — he had just obtained the support of House Republican lawmakers for his Jones Act legislation. Case and Republicans say when the Jones Act is amended or dissolved, the cost of goods and services in Hawaii will drop tremendously because foreign-owned vessels will be able to introduce competition into the marketplace.

Senate Republicans also introduced legislation to eliminate the general excise tax on food and prescription drugs. Hawaii has the only general excise tax in the nation — a regressive tax that pyramids at 4 percent or slightly lower at every transaction, meaning if Hawaii’s general excise tax was a sales tax, it would be around 12 percent to 20 percent on every good sold. Republicans want to change that, especially on sales of drugs and food.

Senate Republican Leader Fred Hemmings, R-Kailua, said at the press conference that the people of Hawaii agree with the Republican plans. “We need to fix education, create jobs, and fight crime. A year after Hawaii turned to a new governor, the popular desire for change remains as strong as ever. Legislators have a responsibility to give the people the vision they demand

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