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Neil Abercrombie was beaming.
It was Aug. 19, 2010, and the Democratic candidate for governor was addressing the Honolulu media at his Ward Warehouse campaign headquarters.
In his hands was a pamphlet with a lush taro field, green mountain range and blue sky pictured on the cover. It was a comprehensive plan, Abercrombie said, to solve Hawaii’s problems.
“This is a culmination, a road map, of almost 18 months of talking with communities all across the state — a bottom-up endeavor,” Abercrombie said that day. “We have had dozens of meetings and conversations, with experts of every range.”
The candidate continued: “This is not a project list — it’s all here, a crystal-clear choice as we go into the last 30 days to the primary.”
Not much has been said of the plan this year as the governor has sought re-election. But as recently as last September, he told attendees at an Asia-Pacific clean energy conference how his administration had made progress on his New Day promise of big changes in renewable energy.
Referring to the plan’s own subtitle, the governor called it a foundation to invest in education, rebuild the economy, sustain Hawaii for future generations and restore public confidence in government.
“We put it in writing because we wanted to be held accountable,” he said at the conference.
So, how did Abercrombie’s New Day Plan pan out?
It would be unreasonable to hold the governor accountable for every word in the 43-page A New Day In Hawaii plan as well as the follow-up called the Recovery and Reinvestment Plan, which came out in October 2010 in advance of the general election that year.
Indeed, in his foreword to the plan, Abercrombie acknowledged that it did not cover “every aspect of governance.” He also said his administration would “continually refine and improve our plans.”
Still, in many ways the plan adheres closely to what became top priorities of the administration that was sworn in almost four years ago: Education (early, lower and higher), energy (including sustainability) and health care (including care for seniors) are the dominant issues. Others include housing, small business and technology.
Some of these same issues are cited often by voters as priorities. As the governor explained, the plan was formed with the input of people across the state.
The New Day plan, however, is less of a “plan” and more of a policy statement and vision.
Much of the text is comprised of statements that are broad and difficult to disagree with, such as: “Every aspect of our lives is intertwined with the natural resource of our islands. Our survival is literally dependent on proper stewardship.”
That said, some promises were kept.
For example, Abercrombie said he would not increase the general excise tax (he didn’t), and he wanted to incorporate the superintendent of schools into his Cabinet (he did) and make early learning and expansion of health care a priority (GG Weisenfeld and Beth Giesting, respectively, head those initiatives as part of the governor’s office). He has also helped form an intergovernmental approach to homelessness, as he said he would.
The governor appointed a chief information officer of the state, helped resolve “long-standing controversies” for Native Hawaiians (e.g., the administration secured a deal with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to settle past-due ceded-land payments) and he arguably employed “a firm and consistent approach to criminal justice” through the Justice Reinvestment Initiative that aims to reduce prison time, return prisoners incarcerated in Arizona and save costs.
Much of the New Day text is comprised of statements that are very broad and difficult to disagree with.
The New Day Plan said it would “protect the human and civil rights of all, regardless of categories.” There is no better example of that pledge being met than the enactment of same-sex marriage in Hawaii last year. (The plan did not mention marriage but rather civil unions, which the governor signed into law in 2011.)
Other promises were not kept.
For example, an “independent Hawaii Energy Authority” was not created. (More on that later.) Nor is there a “Governor’s Technology Council.” And Abercrombie is not still advocating for passage of the Akaka Bill in Congress that would have established federal recognition of Native Hawaiians. Sen. Dan Akaka retired in 2012 and Sen. Dan Inouye passed away that year, effectively killing the legislation, although recognition may still come through the executive branch.
Abercrombie also said, “We will build secure prison facilities in Hawaii on the basis of cost-effectiveness, safety and benefits to the community, and we will maintain the highest standards for corrections staff as represented in current collective bargaining agreements.”
While Kulani prison on the Big Island was reopened this summer, and while the Department of Public Safety is seeking input from potential developers of new prisons, this is still a work in progress. Meanwhile, there have been repeated problems with inmate suicides and escapes, and correctional officers smuggling contraband and taking so many days off that visitation hours get canceled.
And, Abercrombie said he wanted to “decentralize school administration” and “entrust principals with control of programs and budgets.” David Ige, the state senator who is challenging the governor in the Democratic primary, said the opposite happened. The governor also spent much of the early part of his administration dealing with the protracted collective bargaining standoff with the Hawaii State Teachers Union, something that angered other unions.
Other proposals are difficult to assess.
Did Abercrombie, for instance, “prepare for the impacts of climate change”? Did he “raise the demand for local food”? Did he “align the electric utility’s success with Hawaii’s clean energy goals”? The administration has worked toward these goals, but they are far from met.
There are also things absent from the New Day Plan that would become major issues in the administration, things that arguably could not have been predicted. There is no mention of increasing the minimum wage or protecting Turtle Bay, two accomplishments for which Abercrombie deserves some credit. You will also not find the word “Kakaako” in the plan, though the governor has successfully pushed for its development, to the consternation of some.
As with any plan, it had to confront reality.
The New Day Plan ran into trouble during the administration’s first two weeks in office. Abercrombie held a press conference to announce that the state faced an $844 million budget shortfall over the next two fiscal years. The governor characterized the shortfall as a “giant sinkhole.”
That put a serious crimp on the New Day Plan, which would require unspecified amounts of funding for new programs. Asked where new revenue would come from, the governor said that it would come from “retooling,” “reconfiguring” and “restructuring” the budget.
Despite the fiscal challenges, the governor did not abandon his vision. Indeed, he used the words “new day” nine times in his first state-of-the-state address in January 2011.
“This new day begins with an honest account of the state of our government,” he explained, referring to the budget shortfall.
He called for New Day Work Projects that would use the bonding power of the state to “partner with willing private parties, streamline processes, and provide work that will result in paychecks for families across our islands.” The projects would include capital improvement plans for the University of Hawaii system.
After surviving a rough first session with the Hawaii Legislature, where the governor saw many of his ideas die, the governor held a press conference in August 2011 that served as a status report on the New Day. (The front row guests at Washington Place included state Sen. Ige.)
It was a sober affair.
Abercrombie said that, despite having closed a $214 million deficit for fiscal year 2011, the state still faced serious budget challenges. The “threatening storms,” as he described them, included unfunded liabilities from employee retirement funds and medical benefits, rising health-care costs, over-dependence on imported energy and food and large program cuts from Washington.
“We put it in writing because we wanted to be held accountable.” — Gov. Neil Abercrombie
His new plan listed steps for moving the state 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.
With the help of the Legislature and criminal justice system leaders, JRI has been a success for the governor. The PLDC, however, was repealed after fierce community opposition.
The New Day Plan has not disappeared, but it is no longer at the forefront. In his 2014 state of the state, the governor evoked the phrase “new day” again — but just once.
He said, “When I entered office, we issued a call for a New Day in Hawaii. We presented and implemented a plan that has guided this administration and our state over the last three years through difficult times. We faced hard choices and had to make tough decisions. I am grateful for the Legislature’s collaboration as we navigated through troubled waters. The question before us then, is – what direction shall we now set our sights?”
The governor’s speech focused on the state’s fiscal picture, early childhood education, homelessness, the minimum wage, prisons, Turtle Bay, kupuna care, sustainability and invasive species. Those issues are now part of the gubernatorial election discourse.
Speaking of the campaign, Abercrombie’s two opponents in 2010 had plans, too, but they were far shorter.
Republican Duke Aiona released a campaign brochure just seven pages in length. “A Policy Agenda for Hawaii: Jobs and the Economy” focused on helping small businesses create jobs by streamlining the permitting and licensing process and creating “a competitive tax system.”
Democrat Mufi Hannemann’s issue papers were comparatively modest in size as well. His economic action plan had only 10 points, including “Move Forward on Rail. Remove the roadblock in the Governor’s office, get our construction industry working, and build a 21st century transit system.”
Aiona will likely be the GOP nominee again this fall, joined on the ballot by Hannemann, who now represents the Hawaii Independent Party. A three-way contest will ensue with either Abercrombie or Ige.
It is easy to cherry-pick Abercrombie’s New Day Plan. What does the governor himself think about how things turned out?
In an email through a campaign spokesman Friday, Abercrombie said, “I’m proud of the achievements and progress our Administration has made on delivering significant promises and goals in the New Day Plan to benefit Hawaii and its people.”
The governor reiterated the plan’s major themes and steps and then listed what he sees as specific accomplishments:
As for the promise of “restoring public confidence,” Abercrombie said his administration had “eliminated furloughs, negotiated fair contracts with our employees, most for multiple years to ensure that we don’t have any disruption of critical government services, and restored essential services that were cut or eliminated during the recession.”
“Our administration was guided by the New Day Plan, which helped our team formulate initiatives and focus on necessary priorities.” — Gov. Neil Abercrombie
He concluded: “Our residents can now be assured that our state government is running on sound fiscal management that will live within its means, be able to pay its debts and liabilities, save where we can by putting funds in reserves, and continue to have a positive fiscal balance.”
This argument, of course, is the key platform of the governor’s re-election bid.
But he also acknowledged that his administration fell short in some areas of the plan.
“While we have made progress on increasing our local food production, it remains an area for which we would have liked to have seen more results,” he said, adding that the state is “building a foundation” to invest in irrigation systems, protect important agricultural land and increase loans to farmers.
The governor also defended what he sees as progress toward energy independence.
“There appears to be some misplaced understanding about the goal of establishing an independent Hawaii Energy Authority as a promise unfulfilled,” he said. “In fact, in 2011, we passed Act 166 which established the Hawaii Energy Reliability Authority (HERA) as an attached body to the Public Utilities Commission with the authority to development and enforce reliability standards. HERA is just a different name than the independent Hawaii Energy Authority, but its functions, power and purpose are the same.”
The governor is referring to Act 166 of 2012, whose purpose is to “ensure the stability and reliability of the state’s power grid,” according to a report from Ige’s Ways and Means committee approving the measure.
The act, which came from legislation submitted by the administration, authorized the Public Utilities Commission to “develop, adopt, and enforce reliability standards and interconnection requirements” and contract for “the performance of related duties with a party that will serve as the Hawaii electricity reliability administrator.” (Italics added for emphasis.)
The Hawaii Electricity Reliability Administrator, or HERA, is something the PUC is embarking on.
Act 166 explains that HERA should have “an appropriate level of independence to fairly and impartially review matters concerning interconnection to the Hawaii electric system … including independence of the entity from any electric utility, any user, owner, or operator of the Hawaii electric system, or any other person, business, or entity connecting to the Hawaii electric system.”
Is HERA the same thing as HEA (for Hawaii Energy Authority), the acronym used in the New Day Plan? At least one energy policy expert says no.
Henry Curtis, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Life of the Land who has written about HERA, told Civil Beat Sunday that the “electricity reliability administrator” — or HERA — is “fundamentally different” than the “Hawaii Energy Authority” the governor had sought.
The key platform for David Ige’s candidacy is that the citizens’ trust in the governorship — public confidence, in other word — has eroded under Abercrombie and must be restored. He said he hears it over and over when he meets with constituents across the state.
Ige also argues that the state Legislature deserves a lot of credit, too, for sound fiscal management. He has repeatedly pointed out that lawmakers had to trim Abercrombie’s budget requests by hundreds of millions of dollars over the past four years.
For his part, Ige said he looked through the New Day Plan four years ago but had not checked it out recently.
“I do know when I looked at it a year ago, it just seems like they forgot about the plan,” he said. “When you look through it, they talked about doing a lot of different things. I am kind of curious as to what they would say now. If you just scan it, most of the things seem like they haven’t even been started. I am not sure which ones they think they made significant progress on.”
Ige singled out the plan’s call for self-sufficiency and self-reliance regarding energy and food production for criticism.
“He promoted it, and he said, ‘Elect me and I will do this.'” — State Sen. David Ige, referring to Abercrombie
“If you use the metric, I don’t think there has been any progress,” Ige said. “Growing our own food, producing our own energy. … There has been some progress in producing energy, but that really is about the solar panel tax credits.”
(To read about Ige’s own plans, click here. The candidate said his campaign is working to issue new proposals before the Aug. 9 primary.)
Should the governor be held accountable for his plan?
“He promoted it, and he said ‘Elect me and I will do this,'” Ige replied. “I suppose that’s why I am careful about my own promises, because I intend to keep them. That’s always been the way I operate. Sometimes people criticize me for not being willing to make promises that I cannot keep.”
Ben Cayetano agrees Abercrombie should be held accountable for his plans. The former governor, who used to be very close to Abercrombie, is now supporting Ige.
“I gave it a look,” Cayetano said of the New Day Plan. “I thought it was a lot of lofty things he wanted to do, like sustainability and things like that. But one reason why I am not supporting him is that the policies that he actually developed and followed went counter to some of that.”
Cayetano provided an example: “When we talk about preserving agricultural land so we can develop sustainability in food production, and then you go and do things like support development of Koa Ridge and Hoopili (on Oahu), that’s not productive.”
Cayetano had a plan for his administration, too. He said some things worked out, like his proposal to cut the personal income tax rate. He built public schools and renovated classrooms. And he saw to it that the University of Hawaii’s medical school was built in Kakaako.
“I think anybody running for office ought to have some vision of what they would like to see happen.” — former Gov. John Waihee
But he said another big idea — making Hawaii the premier health care center of the Pacific, on par with the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota or the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Texas — didn’t happen.
“In fairness to him, my accomplishments are from eight years,” said Cayetano, who served from 1994 to 2002. “The first four years of my term were really rough. The economy was at its worst ever, there were foreclosures and bankruptcies. What he inherited wasn’t even close.”
Another former governor, John Waihee, thinks Abercrombie deserves four more years. And he has good things to say about the New Day Plan.
“I think anybody running for office ought to have some vision of what they would like to see happen,” he said. “The New Day Plan was a statement of that vision for the governor.”
Waihee, too, had a plan when he ran for his first term in 1986. But he said his plans were far more developed when he sought re-election in 1990.
“It’s because we were building on what was done in the first term,” he said. “The governor is doing that now. His plans are a sort of projection of what you want to see, and then they actually get modified. The governor, for example, has a plan for early childhood education that he is putting forth in his re-election, yet it was developed earlier. It evolves.”
Waihee said circumstances don’t always meet projections. And he agrees voters should hold Abercrombie accountable.
“But voters know that the plans are a vision, and what they really ought to be holding the governor accountable for is how well he keeps articulating and moving in direction of the plan,” Waihee said. “The plans are never written in concrete. What they really are is a guide to what a candidate wants to accomplish later on, and the plan shows how far we got and what more needs to be done.”
Waihee concluded, “It’s about describing a better future. And if voters agree, they ought to vote for it.”
Abercrombie, obviously, hopes people will vote for him and his ideas.
“There are areas of substantial achievement and success,” the governor said of his plan. “We have also made progress in areas but not yet realized the goals we set forth for the people of Hawaii. If I’m fortunate enough to get re-elected, the concepts within the plan will remain an important part of our agenda.”