Hawaii lawmakers to consider gaming, gay marriage

21 Jan 2009

Associated Press

Everything is fair game this year at the Capitol - as long as it doesn't cost money.

Hawaii lawmakers convene a new session Wednesday in which they expect to consider legalizing gambling, recognizing gay marriage and preserving Hawaiian lands. The session runs through May 7.

In a year with the economy in the tank and the state budget short by hundreds of millions of dollars, lawmakers will spend much of their time finding ways to save money.

Social issues that don't require cash will take the rest of their attention.

Other ideas to be considered would build the first nuclear power plants in the state, ban any new fossil fuel power plants and put a cap on medical malpractice liability.

"Everything is on the table, and that's why I raised the issue of gaming. We're looking at ways to raise revenue before raising taxes," said Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, D-Kalihi Valley-Halawa, chairwoman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee. "It's very difficult for someone to walk by and not drop $1, $2, $3 on that slot machine and take their chances."

She favors putting slot machines in resort areas - rather than starting a state lottery or allowing table games - so that gaming would target tourists.

Civil union proposals would be designed to give gay couples the same rights as married couples, said Majority Leader Rep. Blake Oshiro, D-Aiea-Halawa.

"It's always been about equality and equal rights," Oshiro said.

Civil unions have broader support from labor unions and some religious groups this year than in the past, said Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu, D-Waipahu-Waikele, the new House Judiciary Committee chairman who will hear the bill.

The Hawaiian lands measure would block the state from selling or exchanging lands that once belonged to the Hawaiian monarchy until Native Hawaiian claims to those lands are resolved.

Some lawmakers want to pass this law before the U.S. Supreme Court rules on an appeal from Gov. Linda Lingle's administration, which claims the state should control the 1.2 million acres of ceded lands.

"We've come so close. We're on the verge of history," said Rep. Chris Lee, D-Lanikai-Waimanalo, a member of the Hawaiian caucus.

While the state struggles with resolving budget shortfalls, government employees likely won't get pay raises and charitable organizations won't receive much state money.

Lawmakers say they'll try to maintain money for education and health services while crafting a two-year budget that is projected to run $1.8 billion short by July 2011.

Some savings may come from reducing tax exemptions and credits, such as the high-technology tax credit. Some money may have to come from dipping into the state's rainy day funds, said Senate Vice President Russell Kokubun, D-Hilo-Naalehu.

"Issues like health care are real critical," Kokubun said. "I don't want to necessarily be distracted by issues that may not reach fruition at this time. I'm not saying those aren't important issues, but there are critical issues we need to address right now."

The proposal to build nuclear plants is being pitched by the Senate's only two Republicans, who want to reduce Hawaii's dependence on foreign oil. A ban on new fossil fuel power plants also has support from some Senate Democrats.

"We need in our estimation one or two nuclear reactors in Oahu to produce clean energy," said Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, R-Lanikai-Waimanalo. "I'm extremely optimistic that out of the adversity of the times, there's great opportunity."

Medical malpractice reform measures could put a $1 million cap on non-economic damages in lawsuits against doctors in some specialties.

"It's going to be very narrow, maybe affecting only a handful of doctors," Karamatsu said.

Additional legislation would recruit doctors to rural areas and possibly restructure the state's money-losing hospital system.


Article from Forbes.com