Gov. David Ige used the words “long overdue” five times in his second State of the State address Monday.
Speaking before a packed Hawaii House of Representatives chamber, the governor identified issues that he said had been neglected but could wait no longer for action.
They include making classrooms cooler, tearing down the crumbling jail in Kalihi and rebuilding it in Halawa, rebuilding the crumbling Hawaii State Hospital in Windward Oahu and creating a Hawaii Invasive Species Authority to protect “homegrown resources” from outside threats.
To underscore his commitment, Ige used words like “make things happen,” “making real progress,” “move this forward,” “great step forward,” “need to take it further,” “do it the right way” and “we are going to get this job done.”
He also promised results on other pressing issues before the state, like modernizing the tax collection system.
“We know this work delays tax refunds and we are working hard to minimize those delays,” he told lawmakers. “If you bear with us during this transition, we will soon have a system that will be better able to catch fraud, without the time, cost and work required to do so today.”
The governor’s message seemed intended to tamp down recent grumbling emanating from former colleagues in the Hawaii Legislature that Ige had not moved fast enough — or adequately enough — on some of those very issues and others. Give him a little time and work with him, he implied, and progress will come.
Leaders in both the House and Senate have been carping over the administration’s approach to budget items and demanding a greater say in spending and even policy. But the governor’s speech was generally well-received among leading Democrats in both chambers and seemed to buy him some time.
Senate President Ron Kouchi said he actually enjoyed the speech, something not often heard given Ige’s modest public-speaking skills. Kouchi said Ige did a “great job” of laying out what he wants to do and signaled he saw ways to work together on priorities.
Senate Majority Leader Kalani English said he, too, saw a lot of positive overlaps with the Senate’s priorities, calling the speech “well articulated.” He said he was pleased that the administration had also contacted him directly.
“Generally, it was a good beginning … a positive speech,” said House Speaker Joe Souki, who agreed that Ige tackled areas of mutual concern on matters like affordable housing and homelessness.
For her part, House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said she heard a “lot of good things” from Ige, especially the need to pay down post-employment benefits to state and country workers and retirees.
Even Senate Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda was receptive, giving the governor props for providing more information about the Hawaii State Hospital plan. The senator has expressed concern that the project is several years behind and will take far too long to complete.
As further example that Ige is making sure to appeal directly to the lawmakers his administration needs to work with, the governor paid respects to the 12 Marines who perished earlier this month in a North Shore helicopter incident — it was the single-biggest applause line of the speech — and singled out the late Ron Bright, the Castle High School drama teacher, for his exemplary contribution to public education.
Castle High, Marine Corp Base Hawaii and the State Hospital are all located in Kaneohe, Tokuda’s Windward district.
The governor even waxed a little poetic — again, not a talent Ige is known for — closing his speech with these words: “The transcendent call from our island state to the surrounding world is that when we demean others we betray ourselves. There is a finer, better way. Pledge to it, make it real every day and lead the way.”
It was not one big hug fest at the Capitol Monday.
Members of the Republican minority said the governor “fell short,” particularly when it came to providing specifics on how he wants to accomplish his bigger goals like tearing down Oahu Community Correctional Center and building a new jail.
“It was more a laundry list of housekeeping,” Rep. Bob McDermott said after the speech, noting as an exception Ige’s plan to cool 1,000 classrooms by year’s end.
Rep. Gene Ward, surrounded by a group of people wearing blue shirts that read “Fund Hawaiian Home Lands,” said the governor should follow a judge’s order to provide $28 million to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands instead of trying to delay it.
He noted that Ige’s address failed to even mention the word “Hawaiian,” although it did reference the “host culture.”
The issue of how to deal with DHHL is in part a dispute over the legislative and executive branch’s position that the judiciary has overstepped its boundaries in ordering more money for the department.
There has also been longstanding disappointment from the Legislature about the seemingly interminable wait list for getting tenants on the land.
Sen. Sam Slom, the Senate’s only Republican, said it’s too much to ask one person like the governor to undo all the harm the government has done over the years. Instead, he would like to see more focus on diversifying the economy.
Along those lines, Ige announced plans to make Kona a second international airport to boost tourism, already a $14 billion industry providing 150,000 jobs. The governor also proposed $30 million over the next six years from corporate tax revenues to support innovation enterprises.
“For those who haven’t noticed, innovation, fueled by technology, is driving the global economy at breakneck speed,” he said. “We simply must create an economic environment that enables Hawaii’s entrepreneurs to turn ideas into products and services so that we can compete in today’s global economy.”
The seven House Republicans remain divided as a caucus, which was evident in the press conference after the State of the State. Only McDermott, Ward and Andria Tupola participated.
— Governor David Ige (@GovHawaii) January 25, 2016
Rep. Beth Fukumoto Chang, minority leader, made herself available for interviews after Ige’s speech.
While acknowledging that State of the State addresses are generally shy on details, she said she wants more specifics on the governor’s proposals.
Ige was also criticized from other quarters for his State of the State.
Marti Townsend of the Sierra Club of Hawaii complained that the governor missed “a critical opportunity” to outline a plan to address the “existential threat” of climate change. The lack of bold action, she said, stood in contrast to the governor’s notable opposition to NextEra and to importing liquified natural gas.
Ige began his speech by talking about the closure of the state’s last sugar mill, the Alexander & Baldwin plant on Maui.
He said he visited the island and spoke with fourth-generation plantation workers, something that got the governor thinking about his own family’s life on a plantation.
“Today, we live in a time of extraordinary change, where the past seems to have little relevance to what is happening today, let alone tomorrow,” he said. “And while the past doesn’t provide us with a precise roadmap to the future, it does give us the very things we need to find our path: values, sensibilities and the ways in which we treat each other — with aloha.”
The governor said the state erred when it failed to follow the law in the Hawaii Superferry debacle several years ago and with the Thirty Meter Telescope project last year.
The telescope project has been the subject of litigation, including arguments before the Hawaii Supreme Court.
The high court, Ige said, did not say don’t do the TMT project.
“What it did say was that the state didn’t do the right things in the approval process,” he said. “It told us we needed to do a better job of listening to people and giving them a real opportunity to be heard.”
“The unrelenting search for truth, knowledge and understanding is an essential part of our human makeup,” he said. “It helps us become who we are. So does our obligation to be true to our past and cultural heritage.”
Ige did not mention the proposed NextEra purchase of Hawaiian Electric Industries. Nor did he mention the word “kupuna,” senior citizens or the elderly.
But Speaker Souki cut him some slack on that, noting that Ige did talk about energy as it relates to schools. He also said the governor’s proposed supplemental budget does contain money for kupuna care as well as for pre-kindergarten, another area that was left unmentioned in the speech.
Souki added that a State of the State can’t possibly address all concerns.
— Governor David Ige (@GovHawaii) January 25, 2016
Perhaps the issue that attracted the most comment, both from lawmakers as well as from the media, was Ige’s plan to use $100 million of Green Energy Market Securitization funds to install energy-efficiency measures and air-conditioning units in classrooms where children need it the most.
“By using existing GEMS program dollars, the Department of Education and its energy-efficiency partner, OpTerra, can quickly access affordable financing for a large portion of its cost to air condition our classrooms,” the governor said in his address.
Specific details on the governor’s plans will come in the administration’s package of bills, which were due Monday. Then comes lengthy rounds of committee hearings and redrafting of legislation.
“Now comes the hard work,” said Tokuda.
“Will there be concessions? I assume there will,” said Luke.