Unlike their first legislative briefing during the holidays last December, South and West Maui Sen. Roz Baker (D) and South Maui's freshman Rep. Kaniela Ing (D) presented issues and answered concerns to a full and lively house.
By the time the meeting got underway at 9 a.m. on March 2, the room at Kihei Charter School was packed and more people kept arriving. At its peak, more than 50 people were on hand--and not a shy one in the bunch.
If this event was any indication, Kihei residents long noted for their political indifference and low turnout at the polls have turned over a new leaf. Although the status of Kihei High School was the number one topic, questions from the audience touched on a wide range of other concerns, including other schools, roads, GMO legislation, smoking on the beach, the merits of taking or not taking celebrity photos, alternative energy and the Public Land Development Corporation (PLDC), to name only a few. Though the legislators were responsive and informative, the high-energy audience and their very pointed questions were often more interesting than the speakers.
Unlike their first legislative briefing during the holidays last December, Sen. Roz Baker and Rep. Kaniela Ing presented issues and answered concerns to a full and lively house.
The mood of the crowd ranged from polite, respectful and supportive to boisterous, loud, disdainful and skeptical. Comments and questions from the floor evoked responses that included spontaneous cheers and rounds of enthusiastic applause as well as hisses and loud boos. There were also shouts: "Sit down and shut up!"
Not only did those present stay for the full question-and-answer session that went on for more than an hour-and-a-half, but many stayed long after the meeting ended to speak to the lawmakers privately.
Stephen West, a Kihei resident and a parent of two young daughters, was characteristic of the audience members. He said he is a strong supporter of the school and plans to get more involved in making it a reality.
On the high school front, there was good news and bad news. The good news is the long-awaited facility--discussed for decades, but yet to be funded or built--has managed to secure a whopping $130 million line item "ask" in the current proposed budget. That makes it the biggest single capital improvement request in Gov. Neil Abercrombie's spending plan.
Should that astronomical figure make it through the legislative process and emerge intact at the other end, there would be theoretically enough money allocated to build the school all at one time.
The bad news is that the chance the "get" will be as big as the "ask" is slim to none. Both lawmakers were optimistic that some amount of money would be coming out the other end but doubtful Kihei would receive the money all at once, even though planning for the school has been in the works for decades and land has been acquired by the state. Explaining the political realities, as well as some of the intricacies of the financing, the duo agreed, "We'll take what we can get and be grateful."
With an eye to getting as much as possible, Ing and Baker stressed the importance of letting other lawmakers--particularly those on the finance committees--know about the importance of this school to South Maui, and to do it soon and often.
Reached for comment after the meeting, House Speaker Rep. Joe Souki confirmed that he was "personally committed to the Kihei High School." It was his opinion that there would be significant funding allocated to the project in this session, but just what the dollar amount would be would not be known until later. Likewise, whether the construction would be a one-time design and build or "a phased development" he could not say.
Asked point blank what the earliest actual date a new high school would be ready for occupancy, Baker estimated doors opening in the 2016-17 school year.
Again, this was not your ordinary passive audience. They asked money questions and hard ones. "What kind of bonds would be sold to fund the project? What was the interest rate? How much would it cost be when it was all said and done? Spread over how long?"
Baker did a good job of compressing a huge amount of arcane finance information into 30-second sound bites. She pointed out that the average age of Hawai'i's schools was more than 60 years old and mentioned while the state was near the top of the list on dollars spent for education, it ranked dead last on money spent for building and maintenance. She and Ing were emphatic that lots of other schools wanted money, too. Baker named Lahainaluna High School and its student boarding building as one in need of help.
Another sign of progress mentioned was the upcoming state Land Use Commission hearing set to change the status of the school site from "Agricultural" to "Urban." That meeting is currently on the commission's agenda for June 13-14 at the Kahului Airport Courtyard Marriott Airport at 9:30 a.m.
Since this was not your garden-variety legislative update, there were notable hot spots in the crowd.
One was Antonio Gimbernat--a brave fellow indeed--who got up and proposed a whole slew of plausible but intensely unpopular ideas: Don't we already have a lot of high schools on Maui? What's the rush to build another one? With modern technology, is there really a need for all those expensive, high-maintenance structures?
He proposed a whole shopping list of things he thinks are more deserving of public money than a new local high school.
The room rang with shouts of "You no mo' kids," "You don't know what you're talking about" and other comments unsuitable for a family newspaper.
Like new comic bombing at open mic night, each suggestion got louder boos than the one before it, until finally the room erupted into shouts of "Sit down!" "Move on," "Enough already!" "Keep it civil."
And civil it was, though at times--barely.
The advocates of food labeling for products containing genetically modified ingredients were there, too. Though the subject was only lightly discussed, there were very pointed questions from members of the audience aimed at Baker's refusal to even schedule a hearing on certain measures related to the topic.
Stephanie Costantino was not happy with Baker. Constantino identified herself as a cancer survivor who had been helped by treatment "not available in the U.S." and using scientific information that had been suppressed in this country. She favored labeling, opposed GMOs and urged reading about the work of Dr. Arpad Pusztai, the "Whistle Blowing Hero" in the Huffington Post (www.huffingtonpost.com/jeffrey-smith/anniversary-of-a-whistleb_b_675817.html).
Baker took the heat and responded. Her view was that she had had prior skirmishes over labeling, and in the past, the state attorney general had given the opinion that labeling is a federal standard, not a state one. The legislature is not able to regulate it. She said she had requested another opinion in the heat of the current controversy and had not so far received it.
If Baker had her opponents, she also had her defendants. When another GMO questioner addressed her in a hostile tone, the voice of Makena's Pat Borge rang out with a thick local accent, "That's our senator you're speaking to. Give the lady some respect."
Borge also observed, "There are at least a thousand other small things that need money." He asked for road improvements "out our way." He had some zinging, off-the-cuff remarks aimed at proposed legislation related to protecting the privacy of celebrities visiting Hawai'i, dubbed the "Steven Tyler Bill."
Borge pointed out that Tyler had bought a house right on the shore in one of the most high-traffic tourist areas. He also pointed out that he left the lights on all the time and paraded around in full sight as he played music until late in the night.
"What privacy?" Borge exclaimed. "Give me a break."
His plea for sanity and common sense in a world full of nut-case behavior got spontaneous cheers and a solid round of applause.
Also up for questions was Ing's bill to ban smoking on the beach. The measure, he said, is dead for this session, but it drew praise and objections, too. Ing replied that he thought it was time to have a discussion on the subject, and he wanted to see the issue raised. He also listed other items in his legislative agenda, including organ donation, social media privacy and same-day voter registration.