BY JIM DOOLEY – Lawmakers knocked off work for the year Thursday, passing an $11 billion budget and a wide variety of legislation including one bill aimed at finally ending the incarceration of more than 1,000 Hawaii prison inmates in Mainland institutions.
The Legislature also reached a landmark agreement with the Office of Hawaii to transfer $200 million worth of property to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, settling a decades-long dispute over lost revenue owed to OHA over the use of ceded lands.
Passed Thursday was a measure setting up the initial framework for undersea inter-island cables that would carry “clean energy” generated from wind and geothermal resources from Neighbor Islands to Oahu.
House Finance Committee chairman Rep. Marcus Oshiro, D-39th Dist. (Wahiawa, Whitmore Village, Launani Valley), took time to scold his colleagues for failing to address massive and growing deficits in trust funds that pay pension and health care benefits for government employees.
Oshiro called that his “biggest disappointment“ of the legislative session.
The health benefits trust fund and the Employees Retirement system together are short some $25 billion needed to pay future obligations, in part because the state siphoned away money when the funds were in solid financial shape.
“We are barely addressing longer term liabilities,” Oshiro said.
“We should be setting aside nearly $500 million a year” just to begin meeting future health care benefits that will be owed to retirees, said Oshiro.
This year, he said, “We could not get agreement to set aside a mere 10 per cent of that amount.”
“As a last ditch effort, I even sought to deposit $5 million…but that, too, was rejected,” said Oshiro.
Lawmakers did pass a bill that will lessen the benefits that the funds must pay in future years to newly-hired employees.
And they approved another measure aimed at stopping government workers from “spiking” their pension benefits by arranging to work large amounts of overtime in the years leading up to their retirements.
Governor Neil Abercrombie applauded passage of those bills and congratulated lawmakers for their overall work this year.
He singled out the inter-island cable bill for particular praise.
“This is a long-term infrastructure investment that is needed now,” Abercrombie said in a written statement.
“An integrated grid will stabilize energy prices and equalize rates between the islands, which will benefit all of us,” he said.
The measures aimed at reducing prison populations and returning inmates to Hawaii grew from a plan called the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
It calls for careful “risk assessments” of pre- and post-conviction detainees to determine who can be released from custody on bail, probation or parole.
Funds saved from incarceration can be used to improve monitoring of the offenders and developing treatment programs aimed at reducing criminal recidivism.
The Legislature agreed to spend an extra $429 million on public works projects to jump-start the sluggish local economy and put long-idled construction workers back on the job.