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Hawaii senators advance $12.1 billion budget out of key committee while reducing expenses

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HONOLULU — Lawmakers in a key state Senate committee advanced their version of the state's $12.1 billion budget Thursday, making tough choices for 2015 spending after the state's revenue projections were less than expected.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee reduced expenses for this year and next year's budgets by about $192 million, said Sen. David Ige, the committee chairman. The hearing room was packed with representatives from state agencies who were concerned about the potential cuts to their programs.

To accomplish the reduction, the committee chose not to fund about $280 million in capital improvement projects proposed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie. Instead, the committee prioritized funding public schools and higher education, Ige said. Under the proposal, the Department of Education would get $638 million in the upcoming fiscal year.

"We are providing more resources for early learning so that we can reach more kids," Ige said.

The University of Hawaii would receive $625 million to use on the College of Pharmacy, health, safety, repairs and maintenance.

The committee also preserved safety net programs in Hawaii's Department of Human Services, Ige said. About $5.5 million was set aside to adjust the monthly rates paid to foster families.

"Foster families have not gotten a pay increase for 20 years, so I really appreciate that," said Democratic Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland.

But funding for new and existing projects in the Department of Transportation would be reduced.

The committee approved the budget unanimously, but Republican Sen. Sam Slom voted with reservations, saying the state should be more conservative about spending.

"We are reliant on a visitor industry that has carried this state for the last two years and now is slowing," Slom said.

Under the Senate committee's proposed budget, Hawaii will finish this fiscal year with a balance of $636 million and the next fiscal year with a surplus of $313 million. But the state still has to figure out how to deal with a projected deficit in the following years.

The proposed budget will go to the Senate floor for a vote. After its expected approval in the Senate, the House and Senate will hash out their differences in conference committees.

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