UPDATE: Senate Passes Budget Without Hawaii Fee Exemption
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by Dave Smith
***Updated 4:21 p.m.***
The US Senate today approved a bipartisan budget package that will trim automatic spending cuts and reduce the risk of another government shutdown.
The measure passed by a vote of 64-36 still requires Congress to agree on how the more than $1 trillion budget will be spent. Failure to do so by Jan. 15 could cause a partial shutdown.
Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono said the bill wasn’t perfect, but demonstrated that Democrats and Republicans could work together to “break the gridlock.”
“This budget will help strengthen our economy by restoring essential funding for government functions and providing certainty to Americans and the business community,” Hirono said.
She noted that areas of concern include cuts in benefits for military retirees and federal workers, as well as an increase in transportation security fees opposed by Hawaii’s congressional delegation.
A spokesman for Sen. Brian Schatz said he will continue to work to provide a Hawaii exemption from the security fees.
Schatz also noted that today’s budget deal prevents billions in dollars in cuts to defense programs next month.
“Without this budget agreement, 25,000 federal civilian workers in Hawai‘i would be furloughed or laid off,” Schatz said. “Hawai‘i can’t afford that.”
Posted 10:38 a.m.:
Hawaii’s senators are seeking to exempt Hawaii and Alaska from an increase in air travel fees included in the budget bill up for a vote today.
Sens. Mazie Hirono and Brian Schatz introduced an amendment to protect interisland flights from the new fees which would more than double from $2.50 to $5.60.
“In Hawaii, residents rely on air travel to receive healthcare, connect with family and friends, and conduct business,” said Hirono, who added that raising air travel fees ignores the disparate economic impact that increased fees and taxes on air transportation would have on non-contiguous states.
They were joined in introducing the amendment by fellow Democratic Sen. Mark Begich of Alaska, where residents face similar challenges.
“Flying isn’t just a luxury for Alaskans – it’s a necessity for things like work and medical care,” Begich said. “With over 30,000 people living off the road system, doubling air travel security fees for some flights in my state would create an unnecessary strain for traveling Alaskans.”
“Recognizing the unique position of both Hawaii and Alaska, and exempting us from increased air fees is not only fair, it is commonsense,” Schatz said.
The fee hike was included in the budget bill approved 332-94 last week by the House.
It received wide bipartisan support, in contrast to past budget negotiations which resulted in sequesters and October’s 16-day government shutdown.
Both Hawaii House members also said they had concerns about the security fee increase.
While saying that it was “far from perfect,” Rep. Tulsi Gabbard voted in favor of the bill but added she intended to seek an exemption from it for Hawaii residents.
“In particular, the significant hike in the Aviation Passenger Security Fee is harmful because so many of our residents rely on air travel to get to work, access healthcare, and visit loved ones on other islands,” Gabbard said last week.
Rep. Colleen Hanabusa voted against the budget bill, saying it “balances the budget on the backs of our kupuna, military retirees, federal employees, and families who cannot find work.”
She also opposed the increase in passenger security fees “which disproportionately impact Hawaii residents on interisland flights.”