Sitting in the House chamber gallery as the hoi polloi filed in to hear the governor’s State of the State, my seat was quickly taken over by a cadre wearing shirts the color of the directional signs at Honolulu International Airport — you know, the ugly yellow-green ones that tell you where to park and pick up arrivals.
The shirts featured the logo and name of PHOCUSED — Protecting Hawaii’s Ohana Children Under Served Elderly and Disabled. (How’s that for a group that tells you exactly who they are in their title?)
The nonprofit, nonpartisan hui is devoted to unifying dozens of like-minded groups (e.g., Catholic Charities of Hawaii, Waimanalo Health Center, Kauai Food Bank) that need generous state and private sector support.
I introduced myself to the people of PHOCUSED who had taken my seat and struck up a brief conversation, including with Liz Chun, executive director of Good Beginnings Alliance (“Every Keiki Deserves A Good Beginning”).
“Ah, Civil Beat,” she said, eyeing my business card. “I know who you are.”
(Fear not: Chun likes us.)
How many yellow-green shirts were at the Capitol today, I asked Chun. Easily over 100, she replied, pointing to not just the gallery but the Rotunda outside.
The timing was not coincidence — PHOCUSED planned to be at the Capitol long in advance. But, the juxtaposition of a governor calling for sacrifice even from the most needy while groups fighting to help them sat in the audience was jarring.
What was even more stunning was when Neil Abercrombie sprinted up to the Rotunda after his address to speak directly to the PHOCUSED folks, people ranging in age from keiki to kupuna.
Just minutes earlier the governor, after all, had delivered a speech that called for righting a canoe of state that was, in his view, in danger of capsizing. Among his proposals for righting the ship were several that will directly impact many of the people served by PHOCUSED members.
The proposals include ending current practice of state-funded reimbursement for Medicare Part B benefits for government employees, cutting back on benefits provided to Medicaid patients “to sustain health coverage of any kind” for eligible individuals and families, and scaling back on social services programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families “for which funding no longer exists.”
“I am calling on community organizations, private foundations, and all of us to work together with state agencies in helping to absorb the blows that these changes will bring,” the governor said.
PHOCUSED executive director Alex Santiago, a former legislator and former head of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, told Civil Beat the governor’s speech was “scary.”
“We didn’t know what he was going to say today — and I don’t have the details — but I heard a couple of things that caused some alarms to go off,” said Santiago. “I understand that this was a state-of-the-state address, but he knew we were rallying. During the campaign he told us, ‘You have a friend in me, someone you can count on.’ So, we thought we would get a different kind of reception.”
Santiago added, “In tough times, people with the least hurt the most. When will we be a priority — the people who have nothing?”
Right after the governor met with the PHOCUSED folks, reporters pressed him on whether his plans would hurt those who are most in need, notably the elderly and the disabled.
(Of note: The governor had to wait several minutes to speak with reporters because PHOCUSED was still singing, loudly, “Hawaii Aloha.”)
“That’s not a fair characterization,” Abrecrombie replied when asked about the cuts. “We will be working across the board, and as I indicated this is a collaborative endeavor. I’ll be working with the Legislature to see what we need to do to come to grips will all this.”
He continued: “The principal point here that I was making is that there are two areas where we cannot fail to address, and that has to do with unfunded liabilities — the entire retirement system itself is at stake — and whether we will be able to meet the obligation we have made up to this point. And, the question of health care. We may have to revise or revamp entirely how we deal with health care in this state. What I have to do now is deal with the immediate problem in terms of those expenditures. And that’s what we are going to do.”
At that point Abercrombie told reporters the state would find “revenue sources, taxes, fees.”
As spelled out in the “State of the State,” the ideas include increasing the alcohol tax, adding a fee to sodas (an idea that has been proposed before), fixing the tax code when it comes to pensions and deductions, hiking taxes on time-share units, shifting hotel tax revenues away from the Hawaii Tourism Authority and abandoning spending millions on the crumbling Aloha Stadium.
In the end, PHOCUSED was concerned that the poor would get short shrift in Abercombie’s plan.
“We understand there has to be sacrifice — everyone is sacrificing,” Santiago said. “But the poor have sacrificed for the last many years.”
Professional lobbyist that he is, Santiago then put a press kit in my hands that included results from a survey of members and constituents of PHOCUSED and the Hawaii Alliance for Nonprofit Organizations. Among the findings:
• 70 percent experienced budget cuts over the past fiscal year;
• 67 percent met budget challenges by cutting staff;
• 52 percent met budget challenges by reducing programs and services; and
• 21 percent had to wait-list clients as as result of budget cuts.
“The long-term of more cuts will be inflicted upon our community when they don’t get services,” said Santiago. “It will actually cost us all more in the long run.”
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