Banyan Drive redevelopment, rat lungworm research among East Hawaii lawmakers’ top priorities

East Hawaii lawmakers will focus on new ideas and issues left over from last year as they try to grease the gears of government during another state legislative session that begins today.

Proposals resurfacing include support for Banyan Drive redevelopment, rat lungworm disease research funding and creation of an airport authority. Among the new proposals are modifying the kupuna care program, reducing the state income tax rate for low-income earners and allowing counties to legalize marijuana.

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Here’s a breakdown of what the legislators want to accomplish during the next 15 weeks:

Sen. Kai Kahele, D-District 1 (Hilo)

Sen. Kai Kahele will be one of the legislators picking up the ball on Banyan Drive redevelopment and funding for rat lungworm research, which didn’t make it through conference at the end of the last session. They rank among his top priorities.

While some of those bills cross over, he said they might need to start fresh with new legislation.

“With most bills that carry over from conference the previous year, it is very, very, very rare the bills are resurfaced the following session,” he said. “I’m anticipating new legislation that would have to go through the normal hearing process.”

In 2016, Hawaii County created a redevelopment district for the Waiakea Peninsula, which includes the Banyan Drive hotel area and is nearly entirely comprised of state land. But the district board has been looking for funding from the state in order to move a master plan forward.

Bills to support that effort, whether by contributing funds or creating a state-managed redevelopment district, failed to pass last session.

Kahele said he’d like to see the county continue to lead that effort with support from the state.

“I think the state has an obligation to support it financially,” he said.

“I’m looking for direction from the county administration and Planning Department on how they best feel we should move forward on Banyan Drive,” Kahele added.

Funding for rat lungworm research was another disappointment for East Hawaii lawmakers, with the Legislature making a last-minute decision to send $1 million over two years to the state Department of Health for education and outreach rather than to the research lab at the University of Hawaii at Hilo.

Kahele said lawmakers have spoken with Sue Jarvi, who leads the rat lungworm research lab, about her needs. The disease, caused by a parasitic nematode that enters the brain and central nervous system, is spread to people from rats, slugs and snails. Ingestion of the parasite can occur by eating raw produce.

“I think any type of bill this year will pretty much just focus on the research component,” he said. “We need to do research and everything that entails. Sue’s got a good idea on that. We are optimistic we can get some money for that.”

Kahele, chairman of the Higher Education Committee and vice chairman of the Education Committee in the Senate, said he also is looking at ways to reduce tuition fees for the University of Hawaii. He’s also looking at changing the selection process for UH’s Board of Regents.

“We need to transform the University of Hawaii and there’s no better place to start than at the very top,” he said.

Regarding capital projects, Kahele said his priority is building a new cafeteria for Waiakeawaena Elementary School.

Sen. Russell Ruderman, D-District 2 (Puna, Ka‘u)

Sen. Russell Ruderman said his No. 1 priority of the session is raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour.

The state’s minimum wage reached $10.10 on Jan. 1, but he said it still doesn’t approach a living wage.

Ruderman is the founder and owner of Island Naturals, a grocery chain on Hawaii Island focusing on organic food.

“I believe it’s the only way we have to reduce poverty and homelessness in this state,” he said.

Ruderman said his stores have a minimum wage of $12 an hour once employees are past their trial period.

Asked if his stores will reach $15 an hour if the legislation fails, he didn’t offer a date, but added, “We’re going to keep on pushing. I’ll get to $15 well before it reaches the legal minimum.”

Ruderman said workers benefit most when the state increases it across the board. That also provides a level playing field, he said.

“The way to see society benefit is for everyone to do it, not just me,” Ruderman said.

The bill likely would provide exemptions for those in a training period and minors younger than 18 years old, as well as a scale-up period over a few years, he said.

Other priorities include starting a citizens initiative process, allowing counties to legalize marijuana, a death with dignity bill and securing funding for rat lungworm disease research.

Death with dignity would allow terminally ill patients to decide to end their lives.

Ruderman said an initiative process would allow voters to bypass the Legislature on certain issues. He acknowledged that could be used by special interests but thinks it would give residents more power.

Legalizing cannabis, he said, could reduce demand for more dangerous drugs and be a boost for tax revenue, which could help fund education or infrastructure.

“I see nothing but positives,” Ruderman said.

He also is going to continue to pursue funding for a regional library for Puna.

Ruderman is vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Government Relations.

Sen. Lorraine Inouye, D-District 4 (Hilo, Hamakua, Kohala, North Kona)

Sen. Lorraine Inouye said a statewide airport authority is topping her list, along with $1.5 million to expand an emergency room in Waimea and a $1.6 million funding request to purchase land adjacent to the Waimea elementary and middle school campuses and the Kamuela post office.

The land is owned by Parker Ranch and the purchase would help resolve parking issues in the area, she said. The ranch announced it is selling the commercially zoned land to fulfill other obligations to its beneficiaries, her office said.

“The land is critical to the safety of children,” Inouye said in a press release. “Given Waimea’s frequently rainy weather and the fact that over time, the schools have become completely land-locked, families with little ones, in particular, urgently need parking as close as possible to leave their cars and walk children to preschool and kindergarten classes.”

She also is introducing a resolution asking the U.S. Post Office to expedite relocation of the town’s post office to land with sufficient parking.

Inouye said North Hawaii Community Hospital’s emergency room is currently inadequate. The funds would be used to provide an extension.

She said the state needs a new agency to oversee and expedite improvements to the state’s airports, currently managed by the state Department of Transportation.

“It’s long overdue,” Inouye said, noting Hawaii is one of a few states that still manage airports this way.

She said an airport authority would reduce red tape regarding improvements.

Inouye is chairwoman of the Senate Transportation and Energy Committee.

Additionally, she said she wants to provide tax credits for energy storage devices to encourage the adoption of renewable energy sources, such as wind and solar. The batteries would allow residents to store power from those intermittent sources and use it when needed.

Rep. Mark Nakashima, D-District 1 (Hamakua)

Programs for kupuna and keiki top the list of Rep. Mark Nakashima’s priorities.

He said the state needs to do more to support early childhood education, such as preschool, and he is introducing a bill to create an office to focus just on that.

Nakashima said the bill would expand the public programs to make them “more available and more affordable” for residents. He said he was still looking at the fiscal impact.

The state approved the Kupuna Caregiver Assistance Act last year, but he thinks it could use some improvement.

Currently, it provides a daily subsidy for residents who are a caregiver for their elderly parents.

Nakashima said he’d like the program to provide more direct services. He said the state also could fund a van-share for the elderly, particularly in rural areas, with help from community service groups.

He said his focus also is on workforce development issues, and cited the lack of ongoing training for state employees.

Nakashima said requiring more training would more clearly set expectations and provide accountability for job performance.

He cited his own experience as a teacher in Honokaa.

“At no point was there really any training that told me how to do my job, what to do and how I know I was being successful,” Nakashima said.

He’s also looking at funding for classroom expansions in the district.

Nakashima is vice chairman of the House Committee on Legislative Management.

Rep. Chris Todd, D-District 2 (Keaukaha, Panaewa, Waiakea)

Rep. Chris Todd is targeting income inequality this session.

He said he will propose to reduce income taxes on the under $20,000 bracket and cover the cost by increasing the car rental tax by $3 a day.

Todd said this would shift the burden more to visitors.

“Even though we have record visitor numbers, at the same time our income from those tourists have pretty much stayed the same,” he said.

Todd said he is looking to give residents a $20 to $30 bump in their paychecks.

He is entering his second legislative session after being appointed a year ago to replace Rep. Clift Tsuji, who died in November 2016.

Todd said he remains cancer-free after undergoing surgery for testicular cancer last year.

Additionally, he said he is looking to expand eligibility for the kupuna care program, fund another water quality testing position on Hawaii Island, fund rat lungworm research and support Banyan Drive redevelopment.

Regarding kupuna care, Todd said the qualifications, such as having to work 30 hours or more a week, are too narrow for the caregivers.

“It’s a valuable program,” he said. “I think if we work on the margins we can make it a little bit more accessible.”

Todd’s capital project wish list includes improvements to Hilo High School’s field, covered play courts for Kapiolani Elementary School, and covered walkways at Keaukaha Elementary School.

He is vice chairman of the House Committee on Water and Land.

Rep. Richard Onishi, D-District 3 (Hilo, Keaau, Kurtistown, Volcano)

Rep. Richard Onishi, chairman of the House Tourism Committee, is another lawmaker placing Banyan Drive redevelopment among his priorities.

“Without any kind of improvements to Banyan Drive, it really stifles the potential for tourism activity,” he said.

His bill is technically alive after failing to get through a conference committee last session.

It would have created a state-supported Waiakea Peninsula redevelopment district and allocated $500,000 to the effort. Complicating its passage were provisions allowing public land leases statewide to be extended if enough investment is made.

Onishi wanted that language to remain, though some lawmakers objected because of concern it would allow the University of Hawaii to renew its Maunakea master lease with less oversight. He said last year he didn’t want that process to get tied up in courts as seen with the Thirty Meter Telescope project.

The impacts of short-term rentals, such as an Airbnb, likely will be addressed in his committee this year, he said. Lawmakers’ focus might have to do with taxes they pay, since land use is up to the counties, Onishi said.

Regarding capital projects, he said he is looking to provide funding for facility improvements to several schools, including Ka‘u High School, Keaau High School, Keaau Elementary School and Mountain View Elementary School.

Onishi said they face issues related to flooding, aging buildings or lack of space.

He said there also are public libraries at Keaau Middle School and Mountain View Elementary School, which creates safety concerns.

That could be solved with a regional library, Onishi said.

Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, D-District 4 (Puna)

Rep. Joy San Buenaventura, vice chairwoman of the House Judiciary Committee, said she wants to provide diversion programs for minor crimes to reduce the burden on the judicial system.

Diversion could be substance abuse counseling or community service.

“The positive of that is immediate consequences instead of having to wait for trial,” she said.

Her bill would empower law enforcement to make the decisions regarding diversion.

San Buenaventura said there are similar programs on the mainland.

Another bill would affect the large subdivisions with private roads.

She said some subdivisions face too much infighting and she wants to require Hawaii County to set up an office to provide auditing or training for the neighborhood associations.

“A number of Puna subdivisions don’t even have it on the deed that says what community association they are supposed to be making dues payments,” San Buenaventura said.

If residents don’t support the existing association, or can’t agree on which group should manage the roads, then the county could step in and take over responsibility, she said.

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For capital projects, San Buenaventura said she is seeking funding for a cafeteria for Pahoa Elementary School and will focus on Highway 130 funding.

Email Tom Callis at tcallis@hawaiitribune-herald.com.