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Hawaii Gov. David Ige started the 2019 Hawaii Legislature losing his chief of staff and finished it losing his administrative director.
The exit of top advisers bookended a session in which Ige saw most of his proposed legislation go down to defeat, he met resistance in the House and Senate over budgeting and had a couple of close scares on Cabinet appointments.
But the governor had only positive things to say at a press conference following the gaveling to a close of the Legislature.
“I think we made progress in critical areas,” Ige told reporters, emphasizing in particular his view that there is legislative support to create more affordable housing and to ease homelessness. “It’s not everything that we asked for, but it allows us to continue to build the momentum in the areas (where) we have already made progress.”
Ige used the word “progress” multiple times and cast such a positive spin on the legislative session that KITV reporter Brenton Awa asked him, “Does anything get under your skin?”
Smiling, Ige responded by saying, “I’m sorry. I’m a positive person. And we are making progress and I will continue to advocate for the things I believe our community sees as priorities.”
When Ige was sworn in for a second term six months ago, he asked his former colleagues in the House and Senate to collaborate to move the state beyond gridlock.
He had defeated U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa by a comfortable margin in the August Democratic primary, even though he was considered the underdog and she had the backing of top legislators.
Ige then rolled over Republican Andria Tupola in the November general election in a landslide bigger than the one that closed the Pali Tunnel earlier this year.
A few weeks later, as he submitted a two-year budget plan, the governor proposed spending $125 million for flood control for the Ala Wai Canal, $315 million for affordable housing and $400 million for education infrastructure.
And in late January, in his State of the State address, Ige called for a universal preschool system, an increase in the counties’ share of the hotel tax and a higher minimum wage.
But the tax bill died, lawmakers could not agree on how to raise the wage and universal preschool is nowhere near a reality. There will be no $125 million for the Ala Wai, though there is in the biennium budget debt service payments toward that goal.
The Legislature did pass a bill making clear that the Executive Office on Early Learning has authority over state-funded pre-K. The legislation also includes funding for 18 charter school pre-K classrooms, money for 10 new public pre-K classrooms and more than $10 million in appropriations to Department of Education programs such as the Early College program.
There is also $700,000 for the Hawaii Promise program that helps community college students. But the program will not be expanded, as the governor wished. His budget request to that end was $19 million. He didn’t get it.
But Ige sees a glass half full when it comes to pre-K.
“I think everything is about compromise,” he said. “I’m glad that they agreed and we are expanding public pre-K. I will be an advocate for expanding it until it’s universal and every public school student has an opportunity.”
Ige, who spent almost 30 years as first a representative and then a senator before being elected governor in 2014, understands how the Legislature works. As a former chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee, he also understands how the budget works.
On Thursday, Ige said he still needed to review the budget worksheets to see exactly how much money went to support affordable housing and homeless programs.
“I think we made progress in critical areas.” — Gov. David Ige
Asked if he was disappointed by the failure of one of his priority bills — allowing the Hawaii Housing Finance and Development Corp. to enter into 99-year leases of units in residential condominiums located on state lands — Ige took the long view.
“We will continue to look at state lands, at making state lands available,” he said. “The 99-year lease was really our opportunity to find a way to increase the number of affordable, for-sale units, and I still believe that that is the key. I know that the Legislature was looking at a number of measures that authorize 99-year leases.”
The governor said the HHFDC will be part of a study tour to Singapore to see first hand how that city-state handles housing.
Also dead for the year are several other pieces of legislation that the administration has backed: the establishing of an airport corporation, and increasing the state fuel tax, motor vehicle registration fee and vehicle weight tax.
But, like everything that was left on the cutting room floor this session, they can be reconsidered next session.
In the meantime, the administration will now turn its attention to scrutinize closely hundreds of bills on the governor’s desk, including contentious measures to decriminalize marijuana and to tax short-term vacation rentals. The governor declined to say much about either at this point.
Ige will also be looking for new blood to join his administration.
He credited Ford Fuchigami, his departing administrative director, for his hard work and dedication and expressed satisfaction that Mike McCartney, his former chief of staff, will now lead the state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.
But McCartney’s confirmation vote was close Thursday — 15 to 10 — and Ige sat next to a lei-bedecked McCartney as Sen. Glenn Wakai harangued the nominee from the Senate floor as being the wrong guy to run DBEDT.
Ige’s public safety director, Nolan Espinda, also went through a bruising confirmation fight before ultimately winning Senate approval. Same goes for William Aila, the deputy at the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands.
Aila will now serve as interim at DHHL, after Ige withdrew Jobie Masagatani’s reappointment to the top post. And Robert Yu, the deputy at Budget and Finance, will be the interim director now that Rod Becker is leaving.
Though Ige’s appointment process was bumpy, he did see unanimous confirmations for two top jobs: Suzanne Case for a second term as Department of Land and Natural Resources chair, and Clare Connors as attorney general.
Senate President Ron Kouchi pointed to the confirmation process as illustrating the Senate’s willingness to work with the governor. He rejected as “trash” media reports that the politics of elections would hamper the Senate’s work with the governor.
House Speaker Scott Saiki said there had been a lot of coordination between his chamber and the administration.
“And there’s been a willingness to work together and collaborate,” said Saiki. “Going into next session there will be some results from that relationship.”
Said House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke, “Once an election is over and we’ve taken our positions, then we have to come together and do the people’s work …We don’t have the luxury to be holding grudges. We have a constitutional responsibility to do the people’s work.”
Also on Ige’s plate is a resolution to the water permits crisis. He had backed the passage of House Bill 1326 to extend diversion of state waters, but the Senate did not have the votes.
Asked what he would do to help farmers and ranchers who may see their access to water end on Jan. 1, Ige said he is working diligently on the issue.
“We have as an administration made a commitment to resolving the water issues, and we’ve made tremendous progress,” he said, again using a favored word.
“We’ll make sure that DLNR has the resources it needs to work through the process,” he said. “But I think people are forgetting that we are trying to issue long-term leases for water that has never, ever been done in the state of Hawaii … It has to be done right.”
Civil Beat reporter Blaze Lovell contributed to this article.
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