LawmakersThe state Legislature's success -- or failure -- in tackling public employee pay raises, education funding, a new prison and other issues this session will likely be measured in dollars, observers say.
But battles loom overMere mortals can spur change
funding for teachers' pay
raises and other issues
Analysis: Political lines get blurry
Learn to track issues; key dates
By Crystal Kua
and Pat Omandam
Education was on the minds of all who spoke on opening day at the state Capitol.
"It's very heartening to hear everybody talking about education from both sides of the aisle," Board of Education Chairman Herbert Watanabe said while the traditional opening-day partying went on in the background. "They are supportive, but all the answers are not there."
State Schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu said it seems everyone is on the same page in their support for the schools and support for kids in the schools.
"We're even actually talking about roughly the same agenda. We've got a lot of hard work to go, but I'm very encouraged."
Many of the big-ticket items are education-related and include hundreds of millions of dollars for the public-school budget, school repair and maintenance and the Felix consent decree, a federal mandate aimed at improving educational and other services to special-needs children.
Anne Kokubun, who oversees implementation of Felix services for the Department of Education on the Big Island, said the path is set toward compliance and the Legislature can help prevent a bottleneck.
"It's, of course, a funding issue, and I think the way (lawmakers) can help us is to understand what's behind the request for funding," said Kokubun, the wife of newly appointed Big Island Sen. Russell Kokubun (D-Ka'u).
Hawaii State Teachers Association President Karen Ginoza said she would be pleased if lawmakers followed through on what lawmakers said yesterday.
"We would be very happy, and actually our children are the ones that would benefit."
Senate President Robert Bunda in his opening-day speech supported a pay raise for teachers, as well as for members of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, which is looking to lawmakers to approve an arbitrated pay increase of about 15 percent.
The HSTA is currently at an impasse in contract talks with the state and can call for a strike at any time with a 60-day cooling-off period ending in March.
The HSTA is looking for a 22 percent raise over four years while the state is offering a $3,700 raise -- or an average of 9 percent.
LeMahieu said an actual strike or talk of a strike could affect the gains being made in the school system. He believes the Legislature has the tools to move the negotiations process along.
Plans for new prisonMeanwhile, whether the state gets a new prison in Hawaii will depend on the money available.
State Public Safety Director Ted Sakai said the state needs more prison space but it must decide first whether it is economically better to have it here or on the mainland. House Majority Leader Marcus Oshiro, in yesterday's opening day speech, said the majority supports a privately built and operated prison in Hawaii.
"I don't know what site, I don't know what size, I don't know what kind of inmates, I don't know how the private operation part is going to be structured," Sakai said yesterday.
House Public Safety Chairman Nester Garcia (D-Waipahu) said he has concerns about building a private prison here but can't see the state continuing to spend $25 million a year to house inmates on the mainland. The question of who will run the prison is the key issue, he said.
As for location, Garcia said the King's Landing site on the Big Island may not be an option any longer. Nevertheless, he still wants it on the Big Island.
Gov. Ben Cayetano pushed for a private prison a few years ago but could not get lawmakers to agree to the plan. Legislative support for a private prison this year would be a "big advance," he said.
Garcia added he has bipartisan support for a secure drug treatment facility for medium security inmates with drug problems.
"I'm not building a Betty Ford treatment center with bars," Garcia said. "It's still going to have to have some emphasis on security."
Senate Judiciary Chairman Brian Kanno (D-Kapolei) said one of the Senate's priorities is to expand drug treatment for inmates and those recently released from prison.
"One of the proposals is a new facility focusing on drug treatment," Kanno said. "That's where we really feel the need is."
Help for low-wage earnersMeanwhile, there is more support to raise the minimum wage to 50 cents above the federal minimum to help low-income families and individuals this year, said House Speaker Calvin Say (D- Palolo).
Say explained it was the restaurant association that opposed a hike in the minimum wage last year but that opposition has lessened. He said most employers already pay above that because the labor pool is so small.
"We're going to be pushing hard for that," Say said. "It's $5.25 per hour today. If you have an eight-hour-a-day job, I found out the gross income is only $10,000. How can a family survive on that? Or an individual?"
The governor continued his support of the minimum wage and also wants to see more tax relief given to families.
"I think we should continue to give our people some form of tax relief, whether it be in the form of a tax credit or a phased-in reduction of the personal income tax," he said.
Legislature Bills & Hawaii Revised Statutes
People joke around the state Capitol about how Suzanne Marinelli, coordinator of the Public Access Room, has held every job associated with the Capitol except for elected office.
Mere mortals, too,
can be agents of change
By Lisa Asato
She's been a lobbyist, committee clerk and office manager here, and now, as head of the Public Access Room, she's passing on the information she's learned to people who want to learn more about how bills become laws.
She and her staff hold workshops on getting information from the Internet, testifying at public hearings and tracking bills. They'll even tell you how to approach the decision makers -- when and how to make calls, write letters and visit a lawmaker's office.
"There's a place for all of these," she said.
For instance, she said, legislative recesses are a prime time for an office visit. The recesses aren't off days for the lawmakers, it just means that the body doesn't meet in chambers, she said. And when it comes to testifying, she added, "How much testimony can you present before these people glaze over and fall asleep?" Her advice? The shorter the better.
"If a legislator read everything they needed to read every day to make informed decisions on the things they have to decide on, they would have to read 3,000 pages a day," Marinelli said. "If individuals show they know what they're talking about and have good, timely information, (they) can become resources that a legislator needs ... and not have to read 3,000 pages."
Bob Jones, a researcher at the Public Access Room said most people come to Room 401 with one thing on their minds: "I heard something on the radio or TV or read something in the newspaper, and I want to know about it."
That's when Marinelli and her staff will introduce them to the Legislature's Web site's "Status and Document" section, which features texts of bills, their histories and statuses. The Public Access Room even dedicates an hourlong workshop, "Helpful Internet Sites," to that topic. Workshops are scheduled until mid-February, with more to be added later.
"We affect the process of legislation by education," Marinelli said. "It's education, education. There's a place (in the process) for the regular, individual mortal, who we're just happy to help out."
According to the unofficial rules of the game, on the opening day of the Legislature, Republicans attack Democrats and the Democrats respond in kind. Republicans don't attack fellow Republicans and Democrats don't break ranks and charge their colleagues.
By Richard Borreca
So when former Democratic leader and new House dissident Rep. Ed Case rose to speak against the Democratic leadership slate, the House was still and tense.
"I fear, and believe that the sum total of this organization will be a legislative product which, rather than producing desperately needed change for working families, businesses and children, will simply maintain the status quo," he said.
The disagreement points to a new sense of division in the Legislature's Democratic majority.
Over in the Senate, for instance, Maui Democrat Avery Chumbley is relishing his new role outside leadership. His group of senators lost to Sens. Robert Bunda (D, Wahiawa, North Shore) and Colleen Hanabusa (D, Waianae), who organized the Senate.
"This allows us to be more outspoken and visionary," Chumbley (D, East Maui, North Kauai) said.
"There is a responsibility to being a senator, but we have the ability to explore a free market of new ideas."
He said his group of six senators are without committee chairmanships, so they are free to reject calls for party unity.
"There is the ability to move agendas, say a Republican position that makes sense and that the people support, we have a chance to respond," Chumbley said.
In the House, Case (D, Manoa) insisted that as a moderate Democrat, he is closer to representing what the average voter wants, instead of the more traditional liberal Democrat.
Coming into the fray as a Democrat means his majority colleagues can't dismiss his arguments as easily as if they came from a Republican, Case said.
"It is much harder to ignore ... and I'm going to call them every time," Case said.
Democratic leader Rep. Marcus Oshiro (D, Wahiawa) agreed that having public criticism from within the Democratic caucus makes it more difficult, but added that the Democratic package is put together by the entire Democratic policy committee, so it enjoys a wider base of support.
"Ed was extended the opportunity to participate and he chose not to," Oshiro said.
In response, Case, who held Oshiro's post last year, said after the policy committee drafts the majority package, "it is largely ignored by the committee chairs."
Former House Speaker Joe Souki also said that Case's impact will not be great inside the Democratic caucus.
"He will have the effect of causing embarrassment, it makes news, but I don't see it having a substantive effect," Souki said.
But he added that repeating the message may have an effect.
"Maybe if you yell loud enough and long enough, some people will listen," Souki (D, Wailuku) said.
In the Senate, Chumbley is hoping that dissent within the Democratic ranks will broaden to prompt coalitions with Republicans on specific issues.
For instance, Chumbley said GOP calls for a tax cut could start the ball rolling for changes to the tax structure, with tax credits replacing tax cuts and perhaps repeal of the taxes charged on rent and medical products.
Legislature Bills & Hawaii Revised Statutes
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Remember, it's YOUR Legislature.
Various workshops are being scheduled to help you get involved. All sessions are free and run for 90 minutes, except for "Helpful Internet Sites," which runs for one hour. Call at least 24 hours in advance to reserve a seat.
PROCESS/PARTICIPATIONLearn how the Legislature works and how you can affect outcomes:
Jan. 18, 23: noon
Jan. 24, 31: 5:30 p.m.
Feb. 2, 6, 15: noon
Feb. 14: 5:30 p.m.
PRESENTING TESTIMONYHow to prepare effective testimony:
Jan. 30: noon
Feb. 7: 5:30 p.m.
READING DOCUMENTSLearn to read legislative documents:
Jan. 8, 25; Feb. 13: noon
HELPFUL INTERNET SITESGet exposed to useful Web sites:
Jan. 19, 31: noon
Jan. 25: 4 p.m.
A look at some key dates during this legislative session:
Monday: State of the State Address
Tuesday: State of the Judiciary Address
Wednesday: One-day recess
Jan. 26: Last day to introduce bills
Feb. 22-28: Mandatory five-day recess
March 5: One-day recess
March 7: One-day recess
March 8: First Crossover, when House bills move to the Senate and vice versa
March 30: One-day recess
April 9: One-day recess
April 11: One-day recess
April 12: Second crossover, when a House bill returns from the Senate and vice versa
Mid-April: Conference committees, when small groups of House and Senate members meet to draft compromise bills
April 17: One-day recess
April 30: One-day recess
May 2: One-day recess
May 3: End of regular session
The Legislature's Public Access Room is in the state Capitol, Room 401.
Keeping in touch
Telephone number: 587-0478.
Hours: Weekdays, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Saturdays, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Extended hours during legislative deadlines and holidays
Web site: www.state.hi.us/lrb/par
Legislative Web site: www.capitol.hawaii.gov