Gov. Neil Abercrombie says he’s built a solid financial foundation for Hawaii that has put the state in a position to move ahead at “flank speed” on important issues like early childhood education, renewable energy and sustainable agriculture.
Abercrombie sat down with Civil Beat on Wednesday to talk about what he’d accomplished during the recent legislative session and where his administration could have done better.
While he talked about a number of the issues that have grabbed headlines since January, he was clearly energized about what he sees as his ability to turn around a state financial picture that was bleak when he took office in December 2010.
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“We’re in the black, we’re going to be in the black, we’re going to have a very robust and healthy positive balance, I’m confident, at the end of this fiscal year, and our bills will be paid,” Abercrombie said.
“I think from a fiscal conservative point of view this state has never been run better. Never.”
Abercrombie cited the Turtle Bay conservation agreement on Oahu’s North Shore as a top accomplishment, along with a Filipino Community Center slated for Kauai, among other projects. Later, his staff emailed that he’d run out of time during the interview and had meant to also talk about the hike in the minimum wage he’d championed.
Next year, if he’s returned to office by voters after what’s shaping up to be a tough primary fight and what could be a surprising three-way general election race, he says he’ll push even harder for the initiatives he’s made the building blocks of his governorship.
Those, according to the governor, include early childhood education, renewable energy, sustainable agriculture and environmental issues like restoring the watersheds and dealing with invasive species.
Abercrombie has not been popular with the environmental community in the last year or so. His former director of the Office of Environmental Quality Control, Gary Hooser, resigned to run for Kauai County Council last year but not before declaring he and the governor were at odds over environmental protection. Abercrombie only recently appointed former state Rep. Jessica Wooley, well-known for her pro-environment views, to the job.
Abercrombie also angered people in the conservation community by siding with biotech companies in recent debates over whether some counties — primarily Kauai and Hawaii — should be able to regulate pesticide use and genetically engineered crops or if that authority should remain with the state as Abercrombie wanted.
During Wednesday’s interview, the governor went out of his way to talk up his support for environmental issues. When asked at the start of the discussion, “How did the session go for your administration?” Abercrombie launched into a lengthy account of how his administration led an effort that succeeded in landing the IUCN World Conservation Congress gathering to be held in Hawaii in 2016.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature is one of the biggest confabs of conservationists in the world and has never been held in the U.S. before. President Barack Obama wrote a letter of support for Hawaii’s bid.
Abercrombie called it a “great triumph” and “a wonderful opportunity,” although it had nothing to do with the legislative session.
The governor put a positive spin on the Legislature’s refusal to fully fund preschool for thousands of 4-year-olds, including declining to put more money toward low-income preschool or putting in place other early education programs.
He described his administration’s efforts to coordinate and unite public as well as private preschools, despite the Legislature.
“We’re winning, we’re succeeding,” he said.
The governor says he’s put the state on a good financial path.
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Voters will be asked in November whether to approve a constitutional amendment that would allow public funds to be used for private preschools, including those run by religious organizations.
State Sen. David Ige, who is challenging Abercrombie in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary, has said he will oppose the ballot measure.
Abercrombie downplayed the significance of the ballot question Wednesday, saying it is “just a funding mechanism.”
He’d like to see the constitutional amendment approved so the state could move ahead with an important public policy. “It’s just something so we don’t have to fight about it any more,” he said.
Abercrombie pointed out that Obama is pushing Congress to expand preschool and early childhood education on a federal level and that his administration is trying to achieve similar goals.
Still, as the governor conceded, he needs to be in office “the first Wednesday in November” if he wants to see his ideas and initiatives continue to take shape.
“The answer, then, about next year is that if people have concluded that their confidence is legitimately renewed in the ability of the state government to support these various areas — whether it’s energy or ag, etcetera etcetera — then the first Wednesday in November it will be the continuation of what we hoped to be able to do. And I think we’ve succeeded in moving forward since December 2010.”
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Patti Epler is the Editor and General Manager of Civil Beat. She's been a reporter and editor for more than 30 years, primarily in Hawaii, Alaska, Washington and Arizona. You can follow her on twitter at @PattiEpler, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or call her at 808-377-0561.