Legislature addressed fundamental needs
By Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu
As the youngest member of the House of Representatives, I may view the successes and failures of the legislative session from a different perspective than some of my colleagues. For most people my age in Hawai'i, sustainability is important, but affordability is the immediate concern — being able to afford the basics such as housing, healthcare and education, for themselves and their young families.
I was first elected to the House of Representatives in 2002, at age 27. As a very young legislator, I was determined to make a change in the lives of Hawai'i's people. Then, as now, many young people were questioning whether they could afford to live in Hawai'i and raise a family. Today, rents are skyrocketing and gas prices are going through the roof. I spend more than $3,000 a year on gas commuting between Honolulu and Waipahu.
We set a course to help people with affording the basics, and I believe we took many solid steps forward, some big and some small. In addition, state economists and the Council on Revenues have indicated for quite some time that our economy is slowing. The Legislature's approach to spending is fiscally conservative, and aims to use surplus funds for education and infrastructure, which I think will be appreciated by the next generation.
For example, being able to own or rent a place is probably the biggest worry for people my age. Even those with higher incomes are having a hard time buying or even renting a home.
To help with the housing crunch, we put an additional $15 million into the Rental Housing Trust Fund to encourage the development of affordable rental housing. We designated $14 million out of the fund for the development of affordable housing projects with private and nonprofit developers. We also raised the percentage of conveyance tax revenue that will be put in the Rental Housing Trust Fund and extended the sunset date on the allocation of those revenues to June 2008.
Many young people think of healthcare as an issue only when they start to have children. The Keiki Care bill will provide free healthcare to all uninsured children. Other bills will reduce prescription drug costs, bring back health insurance rate regulation, and increase Medicaid reimbursement for doctors.
Our tax-relief package was designed to help those who need it most, and many working students and families just starting out will qualify for these credits. Low-to-middle-income earners will get the most back through a sliding-scale credit. Couples filing jointly with adjusted gross incomes of $5,000 to $60,000 will receive credits ranging from $160 to $90. The food and excise tax credit will help people save money that can be spent on other needs. And, we voted to restore the general excise tax exemption of 10 cents per gallon of gas, which will help the pocketbooks of us all.
We set aside more than $497 million to boost education and repair cracks in the system. The Legislature designated resources for a new College of Pharmacy, which will become part of University of Hawai'i-Hilo, and put $135 million toward building the long-awaited UH-West O'ahu campus in Kapolei.
I am proud that many in my generation are forward-thinking, not just about our own lives, but about the future of the planet. We passed measures encouraging technology, innovation, and renewable energy. These included bills to explore potential broadband access statewide, develop a life-sciences research complex in Kaka'ako with a wet laboratory space and expand Project EAST, a technology-based initiative for public schools that started on Maui. These measures will encourage the growth of Hawai'i's fledgling life-sciences industry.
Most importantly, we took steps to help Hawai'i become less reliant on fossil fuels and more self-sustainable through renewable energy. We pledged to reduce greenhouse gas emission levels by 2020. We also helped finance clean energy projects like a solar-farm power plant at the Natural Energy Laboratory of Hawai'i and a seawater air-conditioning system for Downtown Honolulu.
It's important to recognize that our state's well-being will depend on keeping Hawai'i affordable. The world around us is also changing, becoming interconnected and more competitive. While my generation is trying to solve one set of issues, our kids will face a brand new set of problems. We are aiming to develop an economy that will provide the kinds of jobs needed to first afford, and then sustain, quality of life.
While our most important measures may not have made big headlines, the content of these bills will have a positive impact on all our lives and lay the foundation for future generations.
Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu is vice speaker of the House and represents District 41 (Waipahu, Village Park, Waikele). He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.