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Gov. David Ige’s third State of the State address was heavy on improving public education and innovating economic development.
He said he wants to continue transforming the Department of Education from a top-down bureaucracy to a more school-centered structure. And he called for more money for the HI Growth program that aims to spur entrepreneurism.
But Ige’s speech, delivered to a joint session of the state House and Senate on Monday at the Capitol, was also a defense of his budget, one that has come under nonstop criticism from chairs of the legislative money committees.
He was careful to repeatedly credit the Legislature and county mayors for positive developments in dealing with issues such as homelessness and affordable housing, and increasing state employee pension and health benefits while putting away money for future rainy days.
And he cited a lot of accomplishments over the past two years he’s been in office, such as fighting the spread of rapid ohia death, making the Office of Hawaiian Affairs a co-trustee of the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument and reducing housing eviction rates by 25 percent, which he said kept almost 4,200 people from becoming homeless.
The state of the state “is sound,” he said, with unemployment low, tourism and construction booming and the population healthy.
“Having said that, we all know there is still much work to be done,” Ige said. “There are families out there that continue to struggle despite the overall state of our economy. I know there are those who are concerned about health care, child care and rent payments. That’s why we need to press on with the progress we’ve made over the last two years.”
The governor sounded like a politician facing a re-election campaign in 2018.
How the Legislature responds to his proposals will certainly influence his prospects for a second term.
Leaders of the House and Senate were generally receptive to what he had to say. Who doesn’t want to do more for schools, create better jobs and put roofs over heads?
But lawmakers also want more details.
House Speaker Joe Souki and Majority Leader Scott Saiki were happy to hear that the administration will soon be tweaking the budget and offering specifics in its own bills, which were due to lawmakers Monday.
Souki said he was also pleased to hear Ige say that he wants to support Honolulu rail and that he was optimistic that the Council on Revenues’ March forecast will show an improvement in the state government’s finances. Asked if the governor sounded defensive when he talked about the budget, the speaker described it as an “offensive” approach.
“A good offense is better than a good defense,” Souki said.
As Saiki noted, the state is looking at a potential shortfall of $960 million over the next three years, so budget details and steady revenue streams are critical.
The governor’s current budget proposal, for example, does not include money for wage increases for public workers.
On the Senate side, President Ron Kouchi welcomed Ige’s indication that the state will begin a “reasonable phasing in” of a plan to pay down another $385 million annually in unfunded liability in the state’s pension system.
“We are all waiting on bated breath on that,” said Kouchi.
Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairwoman Jill Tokuda, meanwhile, was pleased to hear the governor highlight initiatives that the Legislature laid the groundwork for last session. A new law, for example, calls for 22,500 more affordable housing units by 2026.
Sen. Roz Baker of Maui was disappointed that the governor did not speak more about long-term care, mental-health issues or the status of the transfer of three Maui-area hospitals from state to private control. She pointed out that many homeless people suffer from substance abuse and mental problems.
But Ige, at a press conference later Monday, said he could not possibly address everything in a 35- to 40-minute speech.
“Do I want to speak for five hours or not?” he said, adding that he tried to identify as many “great things we are doing” in the time allotted.
Ige called the pension fund “the large elephant in the room,” explaining that his phased-in approach would probably take place over five years.
He said the administration will probably scale back some of the appropriations requested in the current budget, and to see what trade-offs might exist between money for capital improvement projects as opposed to operating budget expenditures.
One area of CIP funding he does want, however, is $50 million to build a permanent international facility at the Kona airport on the Big Island.
Another spending priority is $61.7 million to continue cooling school classrooms, something the governor again acknowledged the state had fallen short of doing.
“No one is more disappointed than I that implementation has lagged,” he said in his speech. “But we haven’t lowered our sights.”
Republicans gave the governor’s message mixed reviews.
“David Ige is a nice man with a lovely family. But that does not make him a leader,” said Rep. Bob McDermott. “Once again his state of the state speech offered little in specifics and direction to confront the challenges Hawaii faces.”
McDermott was particularly critical of the slow pace of getting air conditioning into classrooms.
But House Minority Leader Beth Fukumoto welcomed the news that the governor planned to provide more details.
“I think that’s a positive step in the right direction,” she said.
Fukumoto also appreciated that Ige mentioned jobs, affordable housing and government efficiency.
House Republicans will be rolling out their own legislative package shortly. There are no Republicans in the state Senate.