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Hawaii lawmakers to fund Big Island prison

Anita Hofschneider, Associated Press

HONOLULU (AP) -- Hawaii lawmakers have decided to fund the reopening of the Kulani Correctional Facility, along with positions and resources for several state departments including agriculture and health.

A group of lawmakers from both the House and the Senate met Wednesday night in a conference committee to announce the latest compromises on the state budget

Gov. Neil Abercrombie has pledged to reopen the Big Island prison and says it will add jobs to the Big Island economy.

Lawmakers also set aside money for doctors and health insurance, as well as services for the elderly and homeless. The budget included money for more elevator inspectors at the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, as well as funding for education and the Department of Taxation.

Sen. David Ige, chairman of the Senate Committee on Ways and Means, praised the progress and said lawmakers hope to wrap up budget discussions early next week. They plan to meet again Monday night.

But Rep. Sylvia Luke says despite the announcements, the budget is still in flux, especially given that lawmakers need to take collective bargaining agreements into account.

"Everything is still kind of on the table," Luke said. "The budget is still open for discussion and anything could happen between now and when we actually officially close the budget next week."

She says lawmakers still need to work through funding for capital improvement projects as well, because so far they have just focused on operating budgets.

The conference committee has been officially debating the budget since April 11, an unusual move given that such committees weren't scheduled to start until this week. Lawmakers said they decided to meet early to avoid last-minute decisions and have more time to figure out the impact of federal budget cuts.

Although both the House and Senate are dominated by Democrats, there is some disagreement about which programs to fund and to what extent, including new initiatives championed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie, also a Democrat.

The Senate approved a $24 billion budget earlier this session, setting aside money for several of Abercrombie's proposals, including his plan to encourage entrepreneurship and fund an early childhood education program through private-public partnerships.

The $23.25 billion budget passed by the House was more conservative than the Senate draft and had bipartisan support. In contrast to the Senate version, the House draft didn't include money for some of Abercrombie's key initiatives and cut funding for more than 900 vacant state positions, drawing criticism from state department heads.