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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, March 6, 2003

Social service agencies face steep budget cuts

By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Capitol Bureau

Social service advocates and legislators yesterday raised the alarm over the loss of more than $20 million over the next two years that they believe would cripple the state's "social safety net" of programs critical to help the homeless, those with no healthcare and Hawai'i's others disadvantaged.

The cuts are so drastic, said some legislators, that they would even consider raising the excise tax by half a percent to help pay for such programs. But they admit the chances of that occurring are not promising.

Noting that the Senate has proposed a half-cent increase in the excise tax to help pay for education programs, House Human Services Chairman Michael Kahikina, D-44th (Nanakuli, Honokai Hale), said it would be "responsible" for the state to do the same for social service and the most needy.

"The budget cuts will mean fewer people on the front line to help the vulnerable and those most in need," said House Health Committee Chairman Dennis Arakaki, D-30th (Moanalua, Kalihi Valley, Alewa).

Dr. Terry Shintani said the Wai'anae Coast Comprehensive Health Center's loss of $735,000 in state money could cause the center to shut down its emergency room at night. "If there's no money to help out our emergency room at night, there will be not only health problems but additional deaths in Wai'anae," Shintani said at a hearing of joint legislative committees yesterday.

Jonell Eiland, a patient at the Kalihi-Palama Health Center, said her part-time job doesn't allow her to obtain medical insurance. Without the assistance of the facility, she said, she does not know how she would be able to get treatment for her diabetes and high blood pressure.

While the Lingle administration recently restored money going to the community health centers for the fiscal year that ends June 30, it left open where the $1.65 million would come from for the coming two years.

About $9 million of the lost financing identified by legislators yesterday was inserted by the Legislature during last year's session but former Gov. Ben Cayetano, and now Gov. Linda Lingle, failed to include that money as part of administrative budgets for the upcoming biennium. The remaining $14.5 million is actual budget cuts made by the Lingle administration that affect the Health, Human Services and Labor departments.

Human Services Director Lillian Koller insisted that the Lingle budget moves did not affect existing social service programs, but only new initiatives. "We aren't shredding the safety net," she said.

"We are not balancing the budget on the backs of those less able," Koller said, noting that the number of people served is expected to increase in the coming years. "We're going to be very creative. We're going to do things that we've never done before."

For instance, she said, the state is tapping federal money to battle drug abuse on the Big Island and bolster childcare programs. "This department is, for a fact, serving more people with more services, maximizing federal dollars more than ever before," Koller said.

Some legislators said they were unhappy with the positive spin put on the situation by the administration officials when it was clear from the testimony of the social service agencies that the picture was not as rosy.

Sen. Gary Hooser, D-7th (Kaua'i, Ni'ihau), said it was disingenuous for the administration to make assurances that the loss in financing was necessary when there is money in the Hurricane Relief Fund and the rainy day fund. "When they tell you there's no money, what they're really saying is it's not a priority," he said.

Kahikina said he is serious about pushing for a tax increase. "If we have that commitment and say this is a core service, then we should turn that into action."

Arakaki said he might support such a move as well. "If that's the only way," he said. "If you continue cutting, it's going to mean people on the street and people dying, and we don't want to see that happen."

Whether other lawmakers would be in favor, however, are another matter. "It's going to be tough," he said. "But there are other options like the Hurricane Relief Fund and the rainy day fund."

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com or at 525-8070.