Med school denied fund request
A Senate proposal that would have allowed the University of Hawaii medical school to use leftover tobacco settlement funds to pay for operating expenses appears dead after it was voted down in the House.
House members voted 25-21 against Senate Bill 1283 yesterday as lawmakers in both chambers debated hundreds of bills ahead of a key legislative deadline.
The opposing votes were cast by 18 Democrats and seven Republicans. Five members were absent.
"I think that's an easy 'no,'" said Rep. Alex Sonson (D, Pearl City-Waipahu). "The settlement money is not supposed to balance our budget, it's not supposed to go to special interests like UH.
"Yes, we should support UH and the med school, but that money is targeted toward a specific purpose."
By law, the John A. Burns School of Medicine receives a percentage of the state's share of the Master Settlement Agreement with tobacco companies, with the money to be used specifically to pay off debt. Leftover money is returned to the state's settlement fund coffers.
Under SB 1283, leftover money could be put toward the medical school's operating expenses.
After refinancing its debt last year to save money, the leftover funds would have amounted to about $1 million, said Senate Ways and Means Chairwoman Rosalyn Baker (D, Honokohau-Makena).
"It's not a huge amount," Baker said, "but it can definitely benefit the medical school as opposed to just sitting in the fund waiting for somebody to spend it on something else."
Baker, who co-sponsored the bill, said she was "stunned" by the House vote, noting that the proposal previously passed out of the House Finance Committee by a 15-2 vote.
"I was really kind of appalled," she said. "I don't know whether there's just misunderstanding or if there's something else going on -- whether they're trying to send JABSOM a message or they don't like something.
"To me, a lot of the work that JABSOM is doing is definitely addressing health needs in our state."
Rep. Scott Saiki (D, Moiliili-McCully), who voted against the measure, said opponents "had real problems with that proposal because it really does detract from the original purpose that was set up" by the tobacco settlement.
House Majority Leader Kirk Caldwell (D, Manoa) said Democratic leadership did not lobby hard for the proposal and instead let members vote their conscience.
"I think (House members) felt that if they needed this money, they should come back and ask for it through the general fund," said Caldwell, who supported the bill. "They felt that if they have shortfalls, they should be coming back to the Legislature just like everyone else and asking for money to meet those shortfalls."
House and Senate lawmakers have until tomorrow to complete work on each other's bills before heading into conference committees to work out differences.