So dire, he revealed Monday, that he was advised that he had to “seriously consider shutting the state down for two weeks before June 30.”
That advice of last resort came in late May from Tax Director Fred Pablo and Budget Director Kalbert Young, the governor told Civil Beat in an interview Monday.
“Not Furlough Fridays — shutting the state down,” Abercrombie said. “Turn off the electricity, shut the doors, lay everybody off for two weeks before June 30.”
Ultimately, the state found a way to make ends meet: “We made it — we kept going,” the governor said.
Now, as he nears completion of his first year in office (or the first of four quarters in a football game, as he likes to say), Abercrombie has a big final play before the quarter ends. He says it will show he’s established a “solid foundation to move forward.”
Proof of that will come later this week, when the governor is scheduled to announce “sensational” news about the sale of a state bond issue and tell the public what it says about the state’s financial condition and what work it might make possible.
One key project to right the ship of state, he said, is a major overhaul of the state’s antiquated IT system, something that will take years, even beyond his tenure. The effort is a linchpin that will enable government agencies to help push his “New Day” plan forward.
With a new chief of staff, deputy chief of staff, communications director and senior adviser, the governor has experienced hands on deck to help him paddle the canoe of state (another favorite metaphor).
What the governor needs now, besides the new koko and kala, is a little kokua.
“You had enough trust in me to give me your vote a year ago November,” he said. “Please have faith in me that I know where I’m going and I know what I’m doing. It’s going to take a little time — it’s not instantaneous.”
Lingle’s ‘Fiscal Disaster’
While Abercrombie is moving forward, he is also still complaining about what his administration inherited.
“The dimensions of the fiscal disaster that was left for us by the Lingle administration is very difficult to grasp,” he said. “They essentially stopped governing for 18 months to two years.”
(Lingle strongly defends her stewardship of the state, saying as recently as Oct. 30 that her administration “closed an almost $3 billion gap in state revenues without increasing taxes” and took a “prudent, responsible approach to balancing the budget, while preventing Hawaii from falling into the fiscally precarious situation many other states faced at the height of the economic downturn between 2008 and 2010.”)
In addition to the “fiscal ditch” he claims Lingle left Hawaii in, Abercrombie describes a relationship with the former governor that was so chilly he wasn’t even allowed to visit Hale Kiaaina, the private residence on the grounds of Washington Place, until after he was sworn in.
“The cooperation was virtually nil,” he said.
Once the new administration came in, on Dec. 6, it soon became clear that the size of the actual deficit dwarfed anything his opponent, Lingle’s Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona, had admitted to on the campaign trail. He said the deficit was five or six times larger than the public had been told, as much as $1.3 billion over two years.
The governor describes the time as “hectic.”
“I was scrambling the whole time,” said Abercrombie, explaining that Pablo and Young discovered the state essentially didn’t have an accounting system. “I was genuinely concerned that the state was going to go bankrupt.”
‘Prepared for This Job’
Abercrombie is still sore about criticism of his administration, starting with a big one that dogged him during the gubernatorial campaign — that he lacked the executive experience to be governor.
To the contrary, Abercrombie argues that his near four decades of public service at the county, state and federal level gave him exactly the required job skills. He pointed in particular to his years on the U.S. House Armed Services Committee, where he oversaw multi-billion-dollar budgets.
“I was prepared for this job — I was prepared to make the decisions, I knew what I had to do,” he said. “I always tried to keep the big picture in mind.”
The governor believes that he has been misunderstood, and that politicians in general don’t get credit when they’re right. People only remember when they’re wrong.
There has been a tendency on the part of some in the media — he did not name names — to pull out the “long knives” and not give due consideration to Abercrombie’s positions on certain issues.
For example, Abercrombie has not backed down from his view that the names of judicial nominees should remain private. He still won’t identify a decision he made that he later regretted. He believes that what’s often the case is that he’s right on the issues, even if others don’t yet recognize it. He shared a few examples where it took decades to recognize that he had been correct.
And, in two cases where he did name names, Abercrombie disagreed with Civil Beat’s reporting about the firing of the director of Office of Information Services and said that the bond announcement this week will vindicate the hard work of former top staffers Amy Asselbaye and Andrew Aoki.
Criticism aside, Abercrombie reiterates that we are all in the canoe together, and that he is the one leading the way.
“Every time I talk to the unions, every time I talk to the business people, every time I talk to the nonprofits, every time I tried to speak to people in groups and gatherings, I kept saying, everybody has to put their paddle in the water and pull together — that’s the only way we’re going to get to the shore,” he said. “I know where we are going.”
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