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FDR’s New Deal. JFK’s New Frontier. William Jefferson Clinton’s New Covenant.
Bet you forgot that last one.
The new governor’s plan is as ambitious as the presidential plans that came before.
“We will be ready to take action on Day One,” he has said of the plan.
The plan proposes action on the most important areas in which Hawaii’s government has direct involvement: the economy, education, energy, the environment, agriculture, health, housing, business and technology.
There are even ideas on culture and the arts, civil and human rights and Native Hawaiians.
But Abercrombie’s New Day faces tremendous hurdles, starting with the economy and the ability of the state to generate sufficient revenue to pay for government services and programs.
Four or eight years from today, we will know whether the New Day lived up to its promise or fell short, as many say happened with his predecessor’s New Beginning.
And keep in mind that what leaders say they will do and what the have to settle for are often far apart. As Mario Cuomo — like Abercrombie, a governor born in New York — said, you campaign in poetry but govern in prose.
But now that Day One has arrived, it’s time to revisit the New Day.
A New Day in Hawaii is 43 pages long, and its subtitle is nearly as cumbersome: “A comprehensive plan to invest in education and rebuild our economy, to sustain our Hawaii for future generations, to restore public confidence.”
It’s also not the only plan. After winning the primary and joining forces with Brian Schatz, the Abercrombie-Schatz team introduced a 12-page Recovery and Reinvestment Plan — a plan for the plan, as it came to be called.
But first, let’s look at the first document, which Abercrombie described as a roadmap for Hawaii’s future, a roadmap that came from his discussions with stakeholders across the state.
Space limitations prevent us from examining every aspect of the plan. Many were previously talked up by the candidate during the campaign, too — for example, seating the school superintendent and university president in the Cabinet.
Each section of the plan — with the exception of the one on the economy and jobs — defines guiding principles. They are very general, however, and difficult to disagree with.
Take the principles section on early childhood education: Who would disagree with statements like “opportunity for every child” and “parental involvement and strong families”?
Such might not be the case for the principles section on health. “Healthcare access for all” may sound like universal health care to some, that is, the dreaded “socialization” of health care. (See: Republicans, D.C.)
The point is is that the principles are fuzzy-sounding bromides that bring applause during speeches but are much harder to translate into policy.
Which brings us to the second part of each chapter, the policy proposals.
Let’s take the example of a proposal in the environment and natural resources section (itself subtitled “A Commitment to Future Generations”) that is titled “Develop An Integrated Plan for Solid Waste Across the State.”
Noting that recycling program are already under way but that landfills are running out of space and shipping trash to the mainland is a bad idea, Abercrombie writes, “Hawaii can do better, and we will, with a comprehensive and integrated statewide plan for addressing consumption, waste, reuse, recycling, and waste to energy conversion.”
And that’s it. There’s no explaining which departments will handle this task or acknowledgment that each has been been a county responsibility up to now.
In Abercrombie’s defense, he has said he wants to break down barriers between state and county governments — we all drive the same roads, for example, so why not work on fixing them together?
As well, specifics on each element of the plan logically might have to wait until a Cabinet is in place and a staff hired.
But the New Day plan is light when it comes to fleshing out the details.
Now, about that section on the economy and jobs mentioned above — the only chapter that does not include guiding principles. Instead, this section — the very first in the New Day plan — has a boxed item listing “underlying economic problems addressed in our plan.”
Again, they are no-brainers: “woeful business climate,” “people lack financial assets,” “not enough good paying jobs.”
Reads like a TV ad for Duke Aiona, doesn’t it?
Like his vanquished opponent, Abercrombie recognizes that growing the economy and creating jobs is job No. 1 for the governor.
One of his ideas — pace Aiona — is to support small business and entrepreneurship. How? By fostering “a more business-friendly regulatory environment, more training and education, a fair and transparent procurement system, and more help marketing for export and establishing markets.”
Fine. But how shall the state pay for that training and education, or for the marketing and establishment of markets? Are you going to have to hire more people? He doesn’t say.
Again, the New Day plan is a plan — a template, a blueprint — without precise instructions. Abercrombie has made a point of saying that his Cabinet appointees have enthusiastically embraced the plan’s tenets, and they will be the ones presumably charged with making it happen.
(In this sense, Abercrombie’s leadership model — as evinced recently with letting Bill Kaneko take care of all the hiring — thus far resembles that of Ronald Reagan’s or George W. Bush’s: Explain what you want, make others do the heavy lifting and then render a final verdict.)
But it is important to note that there is not a single mention of how much it will cost to implement Abercrombie’s plans for the economy and jobs — nor for any other part of the entire plan.
Yes, the economy/jobs section does say that increasing 10 percent of locally produced food would keep “$300 million in the local economy.” But where will the money come from to make that conversion?
When dollar figures are cited in the plan, they invariably are used to explain how much something now costs. Example: The annual cost of oil imports have grown from $500 million to more than $5 billion over the past three decades.
Such data is relevant. But it is also relevant to estimate how much money will be required to run an Independent Energy Authority to oversee clean-energy development, as Abercrombie proposes.
When Abercrombie was criticized by opponents on such matters, he shrugged it off.
But Hannemann’s main points — echoed later by Aiona — were that Abercrombie’s plan represented a major expansion of government, relied on new and unfunded spending and depended heavily on federal dollars. It’s a fair criticism, one not adequately responded to by Abercrombie.
The Recovery and Reinvestment Plan was an attempt by Abercrombie and Schatz to flesh out the financing of A New Day in Hawaii.
The plan-plan begins by scrutinizing the Lingle-Aiona administration’s anticipation of surpluses for the next six years.
Based on the previous administration’s projections, “there will be room in the general fund for the next Governor to restore broken services and for making smart public investments without raising taxes.” (The italics are Abercrombie’s.)
The plan-plan then goes on to assess the current state of government operations — in short, Lingle and Aiona botched the last eight years — before identifying three problem areas on the horizon that threaten the state’s fiscal health: the next round of collective bargaining, the rising costs of Medicaid and problems with the state’s public employees health fund.
It’s an honest, accurate assessment. What is less reality-based, however, is the solution offered by the plan-plan:
“The silver lining in the face of these challenges is that states all across the country are encountering similar fiscal challenges, and the Obama Administration and Congress are aware of this and looking for ways to help. A Governor with strong ties to the White House and to Congress, armed with a clear vision, can move Hawaii to the front of the line for these opportunities.”
Of course, the plan-plan was released before the GOP shellacking in national elections. Still, the statement above suggests an idealism unsupported by the situation at hand.
To cite just a few developments that have recently surfaced and that affect every state: The GOP assault on earmarks, their intractability on ending tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans, a national unemployment rate nearing 10 percent and the inability to strike compromise on a deficit- and national-debt plan.
The plan-plan concludes with an implementation strategy distinguished by two phases: the first is a recovery period in 2011, the second a reinvestment phase from 2012 until re-election in 2014.
Abercrombie has put Schatz in charge of securing every federal and private “external dollar” that’s out there and directing them to “supercharge” the local economy.
The first phase also calls for making government agencies more efficient (as in having the DOE and UH heads brainstorm directly with the Cabinet), and restoring areas where there are deficiencies (as in hiring those lost ag inspectors).
The second phases basically calls for investing in all those priorities — education, health, energy, etc. — outlined in the New Day plan.
Perhaps Abercrombie’s greatest quality as a leader is his optimism. It is a seemingly bottomless well.
He is also flexible, and he has said that his New Day will continue to be refined and improved upon.
But, while tourism may be on the mend, it is nowhere near the peak years of 2005-2007. It is also the only sector of Hawaii’s economy to show real growth. Should there be another slump in the global economy — hello, European Union; look out, North Korean aggression — Hawaii’s chief economic driver could sink again.
Barring an unexpected return to fiscal health, Neil Abercrombie will face much the same budget choices over the next two years as did Linda Lingle in her last two years. Indeed, this week his administration will take up its first task — submitting the biennium budget it inherited from the previous administration.
What to do? Raise the general excise tax? He says no. Make another grab at the transient accommodations tax or even increase it? Maybe.
Cut public employees, whose salary and benefits are the single-largest state government expenditure? Abercrombie has consistently said those employees are Hawaii’s greatest resource.
In 2014, Duke Aiona and others will be ready to judge Abercrombie on his record, just as he did Aiona and Hannemann. Come 2018, if re-elected, Abercrombie will leave office at the age of 80.
His legacy will be made by the success or failure of A New Day In Hawaii.