What started as a polite presentation on state finances turned into a grilling of two of Gov. David Ige’s senior aides Thursday.
If the questioning is any indication of what’s to come, the 2019 session could be a long one for the Ige administration, whose budget will need the support of Rep. Sylvia Luke’s House Finance Committee and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz’s Ways and Means Committee.
Luke and her fellow legislative leaders backed Ige’s opponent, former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, in the Democratic gubernatorial primary in August. Political observers have been watching to see if lawmakers would treat the governor with more deference in an attempt to smooth things over. That does not appear to be the case.
Luke sharply questioned Scott Kami, acting director of the Department of Budget and Finance, and Ford Fuchigami, the governor’s administrative director.
She began by accusing the Department of Education of lying to the public and lawmakers during the 2018 legislative session, then segued into broader questions about Ige’s chain of command and whether lawmakers could trust the administration.
After a series of wonkish economic presentations by Kami, the state’s chief economist Eugene Tian and Kurt Kawafuchi, the chair of Hawaii’s Council on Revenues, Luke asked Kami to address a statement made last year by DOE officials about the backlog of repair and maintenance work needed for school buildings.
Last session, Luke said, the DOE said it had used legislative appropriations to decrease the backlog from $750 million 10 years ago to $293 million.
“That was a lie,” Luke said, putting a fine point on the issue. “Now the backlog is $850 million.”
Kami didn’t dispute that the backlog had actually ballooned to $850 million, but he also seemed at a loss for a response as Luke pressed him about whether it concerned the administration that the DOE had dramatically changed its story. Kami repeatedly said a study to find answers was in order; to Luke the issue was that the DOE had misled the Legislature.
“Does that bother the Department of Budget and Finance or the governor’s office?” she asked. “Does that bother you at all?”
It was an inauspicious debut for Kami after Ige’s former budget chief, Laurel Johnston, stepped down at the end of December.
And Luke’s questions to Kami about the education repair backlog were just a warmup. When Fuchigami stepped to the podium to help bail out Kami, Luke transitioned into another series of questions exploring who was actually in charge of the governor’s office. Fuchigami explained that he was in charge of policy, while Ige’s chief of staff, Mike McCartney, was in charge of community outreach and communications.
“So the chief of staff is only doing PR?” Luke asked.
The point of understanding the organizational chart, Luke said, was to get assurances that the Legislature could work with the administration on key bills. She pointed to a bill that lawmakers passed last session establishing “ohana zones” to provide temporary housing for homeless people.
Lawmakers appropriated $30 million to construct ohana zones. But Luke said it took Ige months to start spending the money.
In December, he announced $17.3 million will be distributed among nonprofits Residential Youth Services and Empowerment and Catholic Charities, as well as Hawaii County and the City and County of Honolulu over a three-year period. The governor’s office is still working with the newly elected mayors of Kauai and Maui counties to identify ways to use the remaining $13 million.
Luke said there was no excuse for waiting six months to even start spending the money to help homeless people.
She also took Fuchigami to task for a failure to adopt a policy to regulate short-term vacation rentals. The administration had forecast $33 million in new revenue from taxes on Airbnb rentals last year, and when the deal fell through, it left Luke and Dela Cruz scrambling to fill a hole in the budget.
Finally, Luke asked who was going to be the Legislature’s contact on issues involving the proposed Thirty Meter Telescope, a state-of-the-art, $1.4 billion project on Mauna Kea’s summit that recently got a green light from the Hawaii Supreme Court after years of litigation with Native Hawaiian activists.
Fuchigami said that while he generally will be in charge of policy, McCartney might deal with Mauna Kea.
“We’re starting session in two weeks, and you still don’t know who’s going to be the point of contact to address TMT?” Luke asked.
Fuchigami said the administration is bringing aboard new department heads and will have a clearer picture by early next week.
As the discourse wound down, Fuchigami offered to discuss the DOE repair and maintenance backlog that had set Luke onto her line of questions. But before Luke could say anything, Dela Cruz interrupted.
“You should probably quit while you’re ahead,” Dela Cruz told Fuchigami.
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