Amy Asselbaye, Neil Abercrombie‘s chief of staff, has thus far played her role mostly behind the scenes.

On Friday, however, she spent an hour in the hot seat, explaining the budget of the governor’s office to the state Senate Ways and Means Committee.

Senators seized the opportunity to not only press Asselbaye about financing the office — asking questions about the fact that some staff are working on a volunteer basis and why key labor negotiator posts have yet to be filled — but also about the state budget.

They wanted hard numbers on the administrations oft-stated plan to “retool” and “reconfigure” the budget and somehow produce a pot of gold that they have not been able to find themselves after two years of barrel-scraping.

“We’ve heard from other departments that we won’t get (the budget) until mid-March,” said Minority Leader Sam Slom. “Any effort to make that sooner?”

Asselbaye, who began the hearing slightly nervous, stressed that mid-March is the very latest the Legislature will have the budget. She echoed Budget Director Kalbert Young’s promise to deliver budget details for individual departments as they are completed. The administration was “working very hard” to close the $800 million deficit in the fiscal year 2011-2012 budget, Asselbaye said.

But the fact that even the governor’s small office couldn’t finalize its budget in time to meet with senators made Vice President Donna Mercado Kim question whether the administration knew what it was doing with the entire state budget.

Asselbaye replied that the Department Budget and Finance does, in fact, know the final budget request for the office but wanted to make certain nothing was missing. She said an emergency appropriation will be submitted to the Legislature no later than Jan. 24.

But Kim remained troubled.

“I am concerned some people (in Cabinet departments) have absolutely no experience,” she said. “You have to make sure you are up and running, as we were told in the campaign, when you come before us. Just thought I’d share that with you — that you have got to to get directors up and running.”

“I know the directors are working as hard as they can,” Asselbaye replied.

No doubt that they are. But so is the Legislature, and they are growing anxious about the budget.

No Labor Negotiators Hired

Senators also used the hour to probe Asselbaye on other critical issues involving to the governor’s office.

Jill Tokuda, chairwoman of the Education Committee, said she was concerned that the governor hadn’t yet filled two positions that deal directly with union contracts and collective bargaining: the chief negotiator ($80,400) and deputy chief ($72,000).

Asselbaye appeared slightly defensive and said the administration was looking for “the right person,” just as it did, she explained, when it held a protracted search for an attorney general.

Unsatisfied, Tokuka said it was “troublesome” that the positions hadn’t been filled.

“There is a sense of urgency, especially when session starts,” she told Asselbaye. “We are in a tight situation.”

Asselbaye assured Tokuda that filling the positions is a priority.

Understaffed Office Relies on Volunteers

Legislators also learned more about how the governor’s office is operating with a tightened belt.

Last session, the Legislature essentially cut the funding in half, with the money running out Dec. 31. As a result, the office relies on a lot of volunteers to make ends meet.

There are 23 permanent full-time people working in the governor’s office, including the governor and Asselbaye, the only two who make more than $100,000 annually. (Deputy chief of staff Andrew Aoki earns $96,000.)

The staff also includes an executive assistant to “the first spouse,” which pays $27,000. Prior administrations funded the position, and at $42,000, but there was no first spouse under Linda Lingle.

But, because of the budget cuts, there are also 22 vacant positions — including a Washington, D.C., liaison ($90,000) — and governor’s representatives to Hilo, Kona, Maui, Molokai and Kauai (each position pays $60,000). Twenty of those currently have no funding (the two paid jobs are the previously noted labor negotiators).

Two of the neighbor island positions are being filled on a voluntary basis, as are eight other positions, such as those that help with reception, constituent services and boards and commissions.

Asselbaye said the administration was working to see if it could partner with private groups to fund some of the unpaid policy positions.

“Everyone is working very hard, and every staff person carries multiple jobs and duties,” Asselbaye said.

Amy and Andrew

By the end of the hearing, Asselbaye seemed to have hit her stride after the rough start.

By contrast, Andrew Aoki had appeared smooth and self-assured throughout his appearance on PBS Hawaii’s “Island Insights” Thursday night.

But then, Aoki faced only the genial souls of Calvin Say, David Ige, Gene Ward and moderator Dan Boylan. Asselbaye withstood the inquisition of a dozen state senators, including taskmasters like Donna Mercado Kim and Jill Tokuda.

Maybe next time Asselbaye will send Andrew Aoki to fill in for her and get his own feet wet.

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