Neil Abercrombie may have a significantly different experience than his predecessor as the state’s top executive.

And that’s for one main reason: He’s a Democrat and so is the overwhelming majority of the state Legislature. That combination, plus the powers the Hawaii governor is provided in the Constitution, could position him as the most powerful governor in the United States.

When Neil Abercrombie is sworn into office today at noon, he will be the commander in chief — yep, that’s what it says in the Hawaii State Constitution — responsible for the faithful execution of laws and the protection of Hawaii’s citizens.

Foreign invaders aren’t likely to storm our shores, of course, but the title underscores the fact that Abercrombie will have unusual power as governor and have a unique ability to implement his policies and vision, as outlined in his New Day in Hawaii plan.

“Hawaii’s governor is statutorily one of the strongest in the nation,” former Gov. Ben Cayetano told Civil Beat in an e-mail interview.

Cayetano, a fellow Democrat and supporter of Abercrombie (and the governor who preceded Republican Linda Lingle), said the position is unique “because Hawaii state government assumes many responsibilities usually left to the counties — such as public education and health.”

How Hawaii Ranks

In 2007, University of North Carolina Political Science Professor Thad L. Beyle published a study that ranked the relative powers of governors in the nation. Beyle used a five-point scale (five being the highest score) for institutional powers and measured each state based on the following:

  • Whether the governor and lieutenant governor are elected as a team or whether they are elected separately. (Hawaii’s team comes together after being elected independently in the primary election.)
  • What the tenure potential of the governor is — can the governor be re-elected, and how often? (Hawaii’s governor is limited to two four-year terms.)
  • What the appointment power is — can a governor solely appoint or must their appointments be approved by other bodies or even be elected by popular vote? (Hawaii’s governor appoints Cabinet directors, but they are subject to state Senate approval; the same applies to appointees to boards and commissions. Nominees for judgeships are selected by the governor from a list provided by a judicial selection committee and also subject to Senate confirmation.)
  • What the governor’s budgetary power is — do governors have sole responsibility, how much influence does the Legislature have and must the governor share responsibility with other elected officials? (Hawaii’s governor submits a biennium budget to the state Legislature, which makes its recommendations and sends it back to the governor for his review.)
  • What the governor’s veto power is — does the governor have line-item veto power that needs a special majority in the Legislature to override? (Hawaii’s governor, according to the Constitution, has veto power except for “items appropriated to be expended by the judicial and legislative branches”; the governor “may veto any specific item or items in any bill which appropriates money for specific purposes by striking out or reducing the same; but the governor shall veto other bills, if at all, only as a whole.” A two-thirds majority of House and Senate votes are required to override a veto.)
  • How much power the governor’s political party has in the state. (Since statehood, Democrats have dominated the Legislature, the governorship and the congressional delegation.)

In the 2007 study, Beyle ranked Hawaii with an institutional power score of 3.4. This ranking fell in line with the 50-state average of 3.5, largely because Lingle’s Republican administration earned the lowest possible score for gubernatorial party control. In all other areas, Hawaii scored significantly higher points.

Had Lingle had the kind of party majorities in the Legislature that Abercrombie will enjoy when he takes office, she would have earned a five for party control instead of a one.

If that were the case, Hawaii’s institutional powers would have averaged 4.1. Only one other state in the nation had a higher average, Massachusetts, with 4.3. Republican Scott Brown’s election to the seat once held by Ted Kennedy aside, the Bay State is generally considered the most liberal in the nation.

The Power of Party

What’s unique about Abercrombie’s situation is that when he takes office, he will backed by the most one-sided Legislature in America.

In May, when Lingle vetoed a legislative initiative that rejected consolidating and updating the state’s food stamp program, the Democratically controlled Legislature overrode her veto. Situations like these limited the effectiveness she had in pushing her agenda.

That said, Democrats do not necessarily vote uniformly. When Lingle vetoed Hawaii civil unions legislation in July, for example, the Senate had the votes to override but the House did not.

But Abercrombie, a former state senator and representative, may have more success. He will work with a House with 43 Democrats and only eight Republicans, and a Senate with a 24-to-1 ratio. The new lieutenant governor, Brian Schatz, is a former House representative and party chair, and the new administration has been interviewing former and sitting legislators for various positions.

Former Gov. Cayetano predicts Abercrombie will have a much easier time moving forward with his goals.

“Lingle’s partisan preelection statements from 1997 through 2002 and beyond accusing the Democrats of cronyism, corruption, ad nauseum, her propensity to shift blame to Democrats for problems — poisoned her relationship with the Dems in the Legislature,” Cayetano said. “There is no mutual respect or trust. (Neil Abercrombie) does not have that liability.”

To be sure, Cayetano is no fan of Lingle. He defeated her in a bitter re-election battle in 1998 and there has been little love lost since.

And Lingle faced a Legislature with deep ties to labor unions intent on protecting the status quo. Cayetano himself was often at odds with the Democrat-union power bloc when he was governor, especially when state revenues fell when the economy turned south.

The Power of the Executive

Like many governors, Hawaii’s governor can issue executive orders. The position also calls for overseeing statewide public-employee collective bargaining. And Hawaii has no mechanism for initiative and referendum at the state level — something that has impaired the powers of many mainland governors (e.g., California).

One of the strongest tools any governor wields, aside from the bully pulpit of his office, is the power of veto. Some governors may apply a veto to an entire piece of legislation, while others can only veto entire appropriations within bills.

Hawaii is one of only 10 states where the governor has line-item veto power, the ability to remove or reduce specific appropriations.

As noted above, Article III, Section XVI of the Hawaii Constitution says that appropriations specifically exclude the judicial and legislative branches, and that bills without appropriations must be vetoed as a whole.

Abercrombie can send the bills back to lawmakers with his recommendations, allowing the Legislature to amend the them. He can allow the bills to pass into law without his signature. Or he can veto legislation and spending outright, giving the Legislature the opportunity to override the veto.

(The business of override is tricky. For bills vetoed during session, it’s easy enough to schedule an override vote. But for bills sent to the governor’s desk on the last day of the 60-day of session — and there are usually many — the governor has more time to consider the measures. If bills are vetoed, the Legislature must go into special session in the summer if it wants to override them — not a popular route, given vacation schedules and other responsibilities.)

Where Lingle was able to exercise tremendous power — and to frustrate Democrats and others — was through her executive authority to examine appropriations in bills that became law. Often, she would withhold the funding until administration officials could determine to Lingle’s satisfaction whether the spending allocation was appropriate. The process sometimes took months.

An example is Lingle’s decision this year to withhold $23.7 million appropriated by lawmakers from Emergency and Budget Reserve Fund — the so-called rainy day fund — to dozens of state programs and nonprofit organizations.

Lingle had let the bill become law without her signature, and her budget director Georgina Kawamura told the Legislature in late October that the administration would not yet release the money because of concerns over the weak national economy.

At the time Abercrombie argued that the funding should be honored. Shortly after his election, he said he would make sure it would be once he was sworn in.

This is exceptional power for a governor in the United States. Typically, a Legislature would have more say when dealing with such funding.

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