Gov. Neil Abercrombie summoned state leaders to Washington Place Wednesday afternoon to tell them that, despite having closed a $214 million deficit for fiscal year 2011, serious budget challenges lie ahead.
Five of them, actually. None of them new.
Specifically, the governor identified what he described as threatening storms: unfunded liabilities from employee retirement funds and medical benefits, rising health-care costs, over-dependence on imported energy and food, lack of good jobs and dramatic program cuts from Washington.
The canoe of state that Abercrombie described as in danger of capsizing in his State of the State address in January has been righted, but any one of the five storms could flood and sink it.
A New Day plan — version 2.0.
The New Day plan, you’ll recall, is Abercrombie’s bible for righting the ship of state.
Praised by some, derided by others, the governor is sticking with the plan but modifying it as his term evolves. His New Day Status Report — one of three documents distributed by the administration Wednesday and posted on his website — even uses the same font, bold section heads and bullet points as the original plan.
Some of the language in A New Day 2.0 is just as vague as New Day 1.0, e.g., “Partner with the private sector to better coordinate existing programs and bring in new revenues to rebuild the state’s safety net programs.”
But the new plan also includes some specifics.
After nine months on the job, for example, the governor can actually point to $425 million in capital improvement projects to help with his local version of FDR’s Works Progress Administration. He also has a chief information officer on board in order to transform the state’s antiquated IT system.
(The CIO, Sanjeev “Sonny” Bhagowalia, sat in the front row of the Washington Place audience and took pictures of the governor with his BlackBerry.)
Unlike the original plan, A New Day 2.0 is also better-grounded in fiscal reality.
Citing the crisis in Washington, Abercrombie no longer shouts about showering “federal dollars” on the state. He also starkly acknowledges the $22 billion in unfunded liabilities from state employee benefits.
The new plan also lists steps going forward, including identifying “high value” projects for the newly created Public Lands Development Corporation and putting together a plan to bring prisoners back from the mainland with the help of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.
By its very nature, a plan is not supposed to dwell on the negative. It is at best a blueprint or guide, in this case one full of can-do attitude.
Abercrombie is not abandoning his ambitious goal to transform the way state government operates.
Many folks around town are wondering whether the Abercrombie administration is already a failure.
After a series of missteps — vowing to “roll over” the AARP, ranting against the Pro Bowl and asking members of boards and commissions to resign — the governor was told by trusted advisers outside the administration that he needed to right his own ship.
He got off to a rough start, discovering that the budget was much worse than he’d expected and thrusting himself into the national spotlight by promising to resolve the President Obama birth certificate controversy. A few nominees crashed and burned.
There was no long honeymoon for the former congressman, especially after he pitched the idea of taxing pensions and making state retirees pay for their Medicare Part B.
In recent days, however, the administration seems to be making progress on the intractable issue of homelessness. And, despite an ill-timed union talk in Las Vegas, the governor holds the higher ground in his dispute with the teachers’ union.
At Washington Place on Wednesday, Abercrombie did not submit to press questions afterwards, as has been common for governors after major announcements — the better not to blow a smoothly delivered event. Instead, Budget Director Kalbert Young fielded reporters’ inquiries.
(Abercrombie, by the way, is now calling Young his Chief Financial Officer and Bruce Coppa, director of the Department of Accounting and General Services, his Chief Operations Officer. This aligns them with his new CIO, but also reflects their increasing importance in the administration.)
During his 20-minute speech — a focused, well-crafted speech — the governor stuck (mostly) to the script. He also used a teleprompter — something new — and stood behind a handsome podium. And, Abercrombie wore a suit with a power-red tie, not his usual blazer and aloha shirt.
The front row guests included state Sen. David Ige and Rep. Marcus Oshiro — the key money guys at the Legislature — and the governor singled both men out several times in his remarks. He also praised the Hawaii Government Employees Association for having the “foresight” to accept a labor contract with salary cuts and health-care cost increases.
There were still flashes of the old Neil, both good and bad.
He spoke touchingly about how he and wife Nancie Caraway (also in the audience) had enjoyed perhaps the best eight months of their 30-year marriage. However, he said the gravity of the fiscal challenges means now is not the time to cast blame … but then proceeded to point at “the fiscal wreckage of the last administration.”
Democratic lawmakers like Oshiro nodded approvingly after Abercrombie’s speech. House Minority Leader Gene Ward, however, issued a press release saying the governor was “long on rhetoric and short on specifics.” He observed that the budget was balanced only through “raiding the Hurricane Relief and Rainy Days funds.”
Abercrombie wants to present the face of an administration that acts to fix things, as it did in restoring hot water to Mayor Wright public housing.
If A New Day 2.0 doesn’t do the trick, there is sure to be a version 2.1.