Today, opening day of the 26th Hawaii Legislature, Gov. Neil Abercrombie will listen to Senate President Shan Tsutsui and Minority Leader Sam Slom announce their ideas for the state.

He’ll also hear from Minority Leader Gene Ward in the House and (probably) whoever is elected House speaker. Willie K and the Society of Seven will perform.

It will be a festive occasion — especially if the House finally settles its leadership dispute.

But, civil unions aside, the biggest story of the 2011 Legislature and the Abercrombie administration is the budget and the $843 million budget shortfall projected through June 30 and over the next two fiscal years.

Abercrombie has already laid down parameters that may crimp lawmakers’ ability to make ends meet. The governor, after all, has said he will not raise the general excise tax, will not take from the counties’ share of the transient accommodations tax, will not implement furloughs, will not delay tax refunds and will not cut warm bodies.

Yet, other new Democratic governors from California to Illinois to New York are looking at those very things. In addition to tax increases, on the table are sacred cows like reductions in spending on education and cuts to public employee union benefits.

Those last two — involving teachers and students and labor unions — are anathema to Hawaii Democrats and a governor who is a former educator and union organizer.

Yet, the state’s biggest expenses are education ($2 billion) and the health and pension benefits of active employees and retirees ($1.7 billion). Employee salaries and benefits account for 60 percent of the state’s general fund.

Civil Beat looks at the hard choices faced by Hawaii’s governor and Legislature, and what others states are doing.

Abercrombie, In Plan and In Action

First, let’s assess what the governor has said up to now about his plans for the budget and the state, and what he has actually done:

• In his New Day plan, the governor talked about using federal funds and public-private partnerships to create jobs in areas such as energy, transportation, agriculture, technology, housing, health care and education. But he has been vague on where the money will come from, and how to pay for other programs. His budget official has said the administration wants $50 million for new initiatives.

• The governor and his administration have talked repeatedly about “retooling, restructuring, reconfiguring” and other “re-” words, and lawmakers have been meeting with the administration and its department heads. Not much has been revealed publicly, however, and some lawmakers have expressed some skepticism about what can really be done. The administration has asked for patience and time while it figures out the budget — something that also has not gone over well with some lawmakers.

• The one major revenue initiative by the administration, led by Lt. Gov. Brian Schatz, is the New Day’s Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, which was unveiled a month before the election. The plan talks about “accessing external funds” — including “federal funding opportunities” — and working with the private sector and “other stakeholders” to stimulate economic development. The plan also recognizes “challenges” such as impending collective-bargaining agreements, the public employees health fund and rising Medicaid costs. Again, there has been little “meat” from the administration.

• Along with education, the governor has a soft spot for social-services programs, and he is reluctant to take from groups sorely in need of state support. The governor’s very first acts, after all, were the release of $67 million from the Hurricane Relief Fund to restore instructional days and $23.7 million from the Rainy Day Fund for community programs.

• The governor increased the state’s financing of premium costs for state workers’ medical insurance to 60 percent, making the workers’ contribution 40 percent — an adjustment from a 50-50 split. The increases, which go into effect March 1, were warmly appreciated by union leaders like JN Musto of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, which aggressively campaigned for Abercrombie. The cost for the next two fiscal years would be $126 million.

• And, in an op-ed for The Honolulu Star-Advertiser Dec. 26, Abercrombie spelled out a four-part economic plan. But the plan was, like much from Abercrombie so far, on the sketchy side — more talk of retooling and reconfiguring, creating jobs with a “significant capital improvement program,” pursue “every federal dollar and private partnership opportunity” and “consistently” investing “whatever means we have into factors that will sustain our longterm economic and social well-being.”

When Abercrombie delivers his state of the state address Monday, we will likely know more about his specific plans to fix the economy and move Hawaii forward. Word is that a number of bold ideas are in the works.

What Other States Are Doing

Now, let’s take a look at other states.

As CBS News reported Monday, “The nation’s governors are facing budgets that are trillions of dollars in the red. A new CBS News poll shows nearly three out of four Americans think their state budget is in bad shape. An overwhelming majority is not willing to cut spending for public safety. Of all the states, California is in the tightest squeeze.”

A brief coast-to-coast survey:

• Facing a $25 billion deficit, Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, ordered that 48,000 state workers with taxpayer-funded cell phones — including Brown — must turn them in by next June. His proposed budget includes cutting $1 billion from the state’s public university system. And voters will soon be asked to vote on a tax increase.

• In Illinois, Gov. Pat Quinn, a Democrat, has asked lawmakers to raise income taxes by more than 66 percent in order to close a $13 billion deficit. The state also faces “more than $6 billion in unpaid bills to social service agencies, schools and funeral homes; the most underfinanced state pension system; and growing signs of concern from bond investors.”

• In New Jersey, Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican, called for major cuts to spending and public employees and killed a new tunnel project to New York to close a $10.5 billion deficit. He also may cut Medicaid and employee benefits.

• In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat facing a $10 billion deficit, will address it by freezing wages and taxes and capping annual growth of state government to the rate of inflation. Areas to cut include reducing the number of agencies, authorities and departments by 20 percent, reduce spending on Medicaid and limiting local property tax increases statewide.

• In Washington, Gov. Chris Gregoire, a Democrat, has proposals to cut services to the poor, shutter state agencies and restructure government to close a budget shortfall approaching $5 billion. This is the same governor who, in her first term, increased state spending 31 percent — half of it ($4 billion) for education. Much of that money has now been taken back.

• In Nevada, Gov. Brian Sandoval, a Republican, may cut spending on higher education by 20 percent to help close a $3 billion budget gap. “More programs and departments will close, layoffs and pay cuts are possible, enrollment caps are likely, and students will certainly have to pay more,” says The Las Vegas Review-Journal.

What is remarkable about all the budget solutions, as The New York Times reported this week, is that many governors — regardless of party affiliation — are on the same page about what to do and are expressing those views to their constituents.

To put Hawaii’s challenge into some perspective, California’s general fund is roughly $85 billion, with a shortfall of $25 billion, or 29 percent. In Hawaii, the general fund for 2011 is about $5.8 billion and the shortfall per year of the biennium budget is roughly $400 million, or about 7 percent.

In other words, the scale of Hawaii’s financial problems doesn’t reach the proportions of many other states. But that isn’t to discount leaders’ challenge, especially given the unaccounted for retirement and retiree health care obligations.

Back At Home

Perhaps Abercrombie and the Legislature will take a similar tact as their mainland counterparts.

But one thing that distinguishes Hawaii from other states — even those like Illinois, New York and New Jersey that have significant numbers of unionized state workers — is the fealty of Democrats to labor.

An idea gaining support on the mainland is curbing union salaries and benefits.

As the Economist recently wrote, “The immediate battle will be over benefits, not pay. Here the issue is parity. Holidays are often absurdly generous, but the real issue is pensions. Too many state workers can retire in their mid-50s on close to full pay. America’s states have as much as $5 trillion in unfunded pension liabilities…New civil servants should be switched to defined-contribution pensions.”

Sure, the Economist may be a capitalist tool.

But the liberal leaning New York Times ran a front-page story on Jan. 3 that began: “Faced with growing budget deficits and restive taxpayers, elected officials from Maine to Alabama, Ohio to Arizona, are pushing new legislation to limit the power of labor unions, particularly those representing government workers, in collective bargaining and politics.”

In some states with Republican governors and statehouse majorities, the Times reported, “officials are seeking more far-reaching, structural changes that would weaken the bargaining power and political influence of unions, including private sector ones.”

Neil Abercrombie and the bulk of the state’s 76 lawmakers owe their political success in no small part to union power. A question they’ll have to answer is whether they can find a different path to the same goal: a balanced budget.

Nanea Kalani contributed to this article.

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