Friday, April 27, 2001

Hawaii State Seal

scrambles to fund
Felix decree

The Senate and House debate
disaster relief, minimum wage
and age of sexual consent

By Richard Borreca
and Lisa Asato

Concerns over meeting the court-ordered Felix consent decree may force the Legislature back into session later this spring, according to Gov. Ben Cayetano and Senate President Robert Bunda.

The Legislature, given extra money by resolving the teachers strike at almost half of what the teachers were demanding, means there are extra funds for the special-education programs.

But Cayetano and Bunda said yesterday that if the extra funds are not enough, the Legislature will have to return to appropriate more money.

Legislature On Wednesday the legislative conference committee on the budget agreed to raise special-education spending by an additional $43 million a year.

Since the decree was issued, the state's annual costs have soared to more than $350 million for 11,000 children today from $45 million in 1995 for 4,000 children.

But U.S. District Judge David Ezra has said that if not enough money is set aside for special education, he will fine the state $200,000 a day until it complies.

"We have to see if the court continues to press," Bunda said. "If we need to comply, we will have to cough it up."

Bunda said the proposed state budget deleted $21 million in funds for computers in school classrooms, an item that Cayetano had been lobbying for since last year.

The House-Senate conference committee also deleted $4.5 million extra for school textbooks.

Also cut from the budget was the nearly $70 million request from the Judiciary for a new court complex at Kapolei.

The committee did add to the budget a $5 million request for moving the planned Bishop Museum Science Center from Kalihi to Kakaako.

Also yesterday, legislators were trying to move a stalled minimum-wage increase.

Talks broke down yesterday because of disagreements on the size of the increase and the tip credit.

Senate Labor Chairman Bob Nakata (D, Kaneohe) was supporting larger increases proposed by the state Labor Department that would increase the $5.25 minimum wage in three steps to $6.30 in 2004. But those numbers are too high, considering the state is just coming out of a recession, said House Labor and Public Employment Chairwoman Terry Nui Yoshinaga.

The two sides also disagreed yesterday on the state's 20-cent tip credit, which lets employers pay employees 20 cents less than the minimum wage as long as tips make up the difference by 50 cents or more. Restaurant interests have called for raising the tip credit and changing it to a percentage to keep it proportional to future minimum-wage increases.

While the House was heeding those calls, proposing an 8 percent tip credit, the Senate has been insistent on a flat tip credit and one lower than the 30 cents proposed by the Labor Department.

Yoshinaga said she sees a possible tradeoff.

She would be willing to consider those higher numbers if the Senate considers a percentage. But she said she was unsure the two sides could agree to a draft today.

Also at a stalemate is action on the Hawaii Hurricane Relief Fund. Although both sides agree the $195 million fund should be preserved, they disagree on how to use the fund's interest, said House Consumer Protection and Commerce Chairman Kenneth Hiraki (D, Kahala).

The House wants to use the interest to help consumers buy safety precautions such as hurricane clips. Sen. Brian Taniguchi, chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, said that, among other things, the Senate wants to revert 60 percent of the interest to the general fund, which funds Civil Defense and other hurricane-related services.

Insurance Commissioner Wayne Metcalf said the fund will not be jeopardized if lawmakers do not take any action on it this session. Taniguchi (D, Manoa) said the money will not be returned to the contributors because having a hurricane fund facilitates getting federal emergency aid should a hurricane strike.

"People may be saying, 'I want my money back,' but just like any kind of insurance, you paid for protection. It's not like if you don't have a hurricane, you get your money back," he said.

Meanwhile, the Senate and House are poised for floor votes on an age-of-consent bill that would raise the age to 16 from 14. The bill, which would sunset on June 30, 2003, would prohibit sex between someone under 16 and someone at least five years older. House Judiciary and Hawaiian Affairs Chairman Eric Hamakawa said the five-year clause was added to protect teens who are in a consensual relationship.

"The concern with increasing the age of consent is that you are going to capture a bunch of teenagers who this law is not intended to go after," said Hamakawa (D, South Hilo).

Senate Health and Human Services Chairman David Matsuura (D, South Hilo) said a "strict liability" provision was inadvertently left out of the agreed-upon measure, but he would try and insert it into the bill when it comes up for a floor vote.

That provision makes it impossible for people to claim ignorance and say, "I thought she was 17," Matsuura said.

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