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Here’s how a town hall begins in the Oahu town of Wahiawa: with the Pledge of Allegiance (right hand on heart, natch) and the singing of “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “Hawaii Ponoi.”
Everyone is standing facing the American and Hawaii flags. The Hale Koa Room at Wahiawa District Park is SRO.
Then comes applause — applause! — and the area’s state representative Marcus Oshiro telling his constituents he can’t recall the last time a governor visited Wahiawa, let alone during the middle of a legislative session.
There’s food — tons of food — donated from residents, including Oshiro’s mother. “Go eat, grab a plate,” her son implores. “The governor will be here in 45 minutes.”
Outside, in the glow of the setting sun, locals play baseball. Inside, near the flags, Oshiro’s staff have erected a dozen or more stands that display important information the representative wants to share.
“Take a look at these charts,” Oshiro asks, and many do. They include one that shows how the state budget was balanced in 2009, and another that shows the 2010 data.
Yet another chart shows the executive branch budget for the current fiscal year. Sixty percent goes to salaries and benefits for personnel.
Not far away is a pie chart showing where Hawaii got its revenue in 2008. Exactly 50 percent is from the general excise tax while another 29 percent comes from taxes on personal income.
Yet another chart lists all the GET exemptions that Oshiro’s committee has looked at suspending.
And still another chart shows the petroleum reserves of the largest oil-producing countries in the world.
In the center of it all is a list of questions that Oshiro points out. Here are two of them:
How far can we cut government services and programs?
Are we willing to pay more for the programs and services we want?
Oshiro moves through the crowd, explaining that as House Finance Committee chairman he has just submitted a budget to the Senate, where the Ways and Means Committee will hold its first public hearing on the measure Monday.
“It’s the governor’s proposal versus our proposal versus the Senate’s,” Oshiro says. “At some point in time we all work it out together.”
People nod, and they accept and examine the many handouts Oshiro’s staff distributes. Someone reminds everyone that a pineapple festival is coming up.
Someone shouts out, “The governor’s here.”
“OK,” says Oshiro.
Neil Abercrombie enters to a warm reception.
“Hi, everybody — aloha,” he says and then looks at Oshiro. “You pau already?”
The governor takes it from there, and much of what he has to say has been said many times before — about bringing prisoners home from the mainland, about how his buddy Ray LaHood tells him how awful the political climate is in Washington and across the country, how Hawaii is living through the toughest economic times since statehood.
Once again — and again, and then again — he says “our diversity defines us rather than divides us,” a quote that, if it hasn’t yet made it into Bartlett’s, is well on its way.
But Abercrombie says it all as sincerely as he said it the last time. He also heaps praise on Oshiro, the son of the legendary Democratic operative Bob Oshiro.
“You are maintaining the legacy with honor,” Abercrombie says to Marcus Oshiro, and then jokes that he must say whatever nice things he can think of to a key negotiator in the budget conference committee talks that come next month.
Abercrombie makes note of the charts behind him, and he keys in on the questions posed by Oshiro — e.g., How far can we cut government services and programs?
Abercrombie makes clear that shared sacrifice is called for to meet a $1.3 bilion deficit (his figure). Yet he is vague about the details, saying instead things like “it’s about fairness” and “making hard choices.”
(Of note: Civil Beat requested a sit-down interview with the governor to talk specifically about the budget, in particular the governor’s comments that “structural changes” are required. But his office turned us down because the budget is very much in flux.)
Indeed, Abercrombie the governor at times sounds very much like Abercrombie the campaigner, hitting the notes he believes will resonate best with his audiences: aloha, values, sustainability, etc. A New Day.
There are nuggets of news, though.
He says he is close to appointing a new school board, and that his office was flooded with applications.
His administration and other agencies have learned they need to put up more cameras in spots around the state to help deal with another tsunami, and he says Hawaii may have to receive people from Japan — “they may be coming here for treatment.”
He has “reservations” about Honolulu’s plan to establish a transit authority to handle the new rail system, he says he hasn’t seen any progress on transit-oriented development projects, he bemoans that groundbreaking will start in farmland “not connected to people” and that the rail line won’t go to Waikiki or the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
But, he says, it’s a City and County of Honolulu project. Far be it for him to interfere with such decisions.
He also floats this idea: “There are hundres of millions sitting in the bank from the GET … there is no reason not to use it on behalf of the people. I want to put people to work.”
By work he means public-works projects a la FDR and the WPA during the Great Depression. But I don’t know what he means by “millions” in the bank, and it’s late and I forget to ask his press secretary for more information.
He also says he’s still open to the idea of Hawaii getting in on a so-called mega-lottery to raise revenue, like he saw operated in D.C., and to use vacant school lands for work force housing.
And, speaking of schools, he’s going to tell his new school board that maybe it’s not a good idea to close a school just because it has fewer students than others. And why not make UH Hilo a college town?
It’s classic Abercrombie — a gazillion ideas, enthusiastic salesmanship. But questions linger as to whether any of it will actually happen (see: $1.3 billion budget deficit, or whatever the Council of Revenues says it is).
But the Wahiawa community eats it up, and the governor ends with a “bottom line” — that he, Oshiro and the rest of Legislature are going to make Hawaii the state we know that we all want to love.
The night ends with gifts for the governor — locally grown pineapple and jam — and recognition of his press secretary, Donalyn Dela Cruz, a Wahiawa native.
The audience pulls together for a photo, and it’s true ohana, people who have known and loved each other for generations in this former plantation town that relies heavily on its neighbors, the U.S. military.
The hope is for a return to agricultural glory. This governor promises to lead the way.
Abercrombie fills a plate of food. Hugs are exchanged. Outside, football players have replaced baseball. And the governor’s security team prepares his exit from Wahiawa to return to town.