How many people can you squeeze into cramped Conference Room 211 at the Hawaii State Capitol?

Turns out you can get a lieutenant governor, 16 Cabinet directors, administration policy analysts, the Department of Education superintendent, the University of Hawaii president and 14 state senators.

Plus three TV reporters, a print reporter, a radio reporter, a news service reporter and two reporter-hosts. And dozens more.

They weren’t there just for kicks. Instead, most were there for the single-most important issue facing state government: What to do about the budget in light of rising costs and plummeting revenue.

That was the agenda of Senate Ways and Means on Monday: where to find the money to keep essential government services in operation while meeting a $1.3 billion deficit — including $232 million before June 30 — through June 2013.

That’s why all those folks jammed into the conference room and spilled out into the hallway. (A WAM staffer soon set up a TV so the proceedings could be followed via the Capitol’s internal television system).

“Everybody is worried about what they are going to be left with,” one Cabinet head whispered to me. (Read a related story by Nanea Kalani about the picture of state finances that emerged at the hearing.)

The Budget Bill

WAM members, who are working on House Bill 200 — the House’s version of the governor’s budget — are wondering, too. No one seems to know what anybody is going to be left with, especially as economic forecasts come and go as quickly as a tsunami.

The latest news from the WAM hearing is that, in the view of Sen. David Ige, the committee chairman, the Legislature has no alternative than to seek more cuts and raise more revenue from a budget that has already been scrapped to the bone.

Kalbert Young, the governor’s director of budget and finance, knows this as well as anyone, and to that end he said that Neil Abercrombie has asked his Cabinet heads to look for a 10 percent reduction in spending on operations.

(He also says it won’t be enough to cover the fourth quarter of the current fiscal year … nor will raiding all those special funds.)

Stand By Your Testimony

The first hour of the WAM hearing was non-eventful. One by one, Cabinet directors rose to say they stood on their testimony to support the budget (translation: please give us our money). M.R.C. Greenwood and Kathryn Matayoshi spoke briefly, although Matayoshi warned WAM that further cuts could hurt student achievement.

The dynamic began to change when Health and Human Services Director Pat McManaman warned how the state’s share of TANF and Medicaid would be impacted should her department not get what it needs from the state.

Gary Hooser, a former senator who is not a Cabinet head but runs the Office of Environmental Quality Control, then raised the discussion to a new and intense level when he said, “I know what a difficult job you have — I often told people that last year’s budget was the worst in history — but here you are again.”

Hooser then ticked off a laundry lists of problems within his own office that represented writ large what the entire administration is facing: five staff members doing the work of what 11 people once did, one-third of hallway lights dimmed to save energy, office furniture paid for out of the pocket of Hooser’s predecessor, windows not cleaned in years, IT people advising staff to throw away computers and use their personal machines.

“I have five major mandates to meet and there are four that we are not doing,” Hooser said. “There is a price to pay for environmental and economic development. The situation is bad.”

Hooser added that he was almost “embarrassed” to ask for his budget request because it was so inadequate to the task he faces.

Senators Vent

Then came WAM’s turn to vent, and their frustration levels often matched Hooser’s.

WAM members had spent part of Sunday going over the budget, and they came prepared to ask hard questions.

Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, for example, wanted to know from Michael Ng, an administration policy analyst, when the governor’s team would demonstrate to the Senate all that business about retooling the government that Abercrombie talked up during the campaign and after.

Ng said, sorry, he could not provide specifics, but promised that the administration was still working on it.

“Is there a timeline?” Kim retorted. “Is the governor holding meetings on this? Do you have a schedule? Is this going to happen before next year?”

That’s typical Donna Kim — rarely satisfied with answers, always asking “Why?” or “Why not?”

But even quieter souls like Big Island Senator Gil Kahele, a freshman, showed impatience — not only with the inability of some officials to answer WAM questions but also the fact that WAM made all the Cabinet stay for the hearing.

“A lot of time and money was spent to attend, that’s what I see,” he said, suggesting a better use of time would have been to let the Cabinet returned to their offices to find all those answers.

It was also clear that many senators are hearing from worried constituents. In Kahele’s case, his county is already hurting for funds, and the tsunami damage has only compounded things.

Pointing to the budget, Kahele said the state faces “a bleak and dire situation … cuts are coming fast and heavy … We hear from all these social services, all these nonprofits before us — all programs are worth keeping. But the state doesn’t have any money, and I guess it starts with the fifth floor to go back and restructure government.”

Answers “Unacceptable”

More anger, more frustration:

• Maui Sen. Kalani English said it was “completely unacceptable” that the administration has not moved faster to bring the IT inventory into the 21st century.

• Waimanalo Sen. Pohai Ryan said it was “unacceptable” that Honolulu Councilman Ikaika Anderson himself had to mow down the grass in front of a prison along Kalanianaole Highway rather than the state.

• Republican Sen. Sam Slom said the budget was “a charade” because it is actually an increase over last year’s.

• Sen. Glenn Wakai wanted to know whether DBEDT was really working to grow the economy and create jobs.

• Sen. Michele Kidani was surprised to see how much Health and Human Services money goes to help Micronesians.

• Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz demanded assurances that the GET would not be raised.

For their part, the officials often had compelling reasons for their budget requests, some of them based on new developments.

DLNR head William Aila, for example, now needs money to help clean up Keehi Lagoon, which was devastated by the tsunami, while Adjutant General Darryll Wong wants to beef up civil defense.

Ige and Young

Throughout the long day, two key individuals in the budget carried an air of calm authority: David Ige and Kalbert Young.

Both are new to their respective jobs, but, after just a few months, both have begun to master their posts in spite of a budget deficit that is spiraling out of control.

Young, who initially seemed overwhelmed by the task before him — at his first appearance before House Finance in January, he could not provide answers for many questions — is now able to provide data without looking at notes.

More critically, he offers informed opinion on what the data tells him.

Even a tough cookie like Kim, who used to run WAM herself, has expressed gratitude and thanked Young for his forthcoming demeanor.

As for Ige, he understands the data, too. Like Young, he is also an unfailingly polite man.

With tempers beginning to flare — oh, to be a fly on the wall when lawmakers and executives meet behind closed doors to talk about the budget! — those qualities are character strengths.

Ige repeatedly thanked all the testifiers crammed into Conference Room 211 for their patience.

It was a gracious approach in dealing with an issue that has everybody clawing for every dime. This group, after all, is going to be spending a lot more time together arguing about those dimes.

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