What was supposed to be a briefing Friday on Gov. David Ige’s plan to slash the state’s operating budget turned into a shouting match between a panel of senators and the governor’s chief of staff, who the senators accused of withholding information vital to developing a response to the coronavirus.
The hearing highlighted the tensions building in the past month between the Senate and some of Ige’s cabinet members, including his chief of staff, Linda Chu Takayama, over what they perceive as a slow response to the pandemic.
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, who chairs the Senate special COVID-19 committee, said the lawmakers have considered writing a letter to the governor that amounts to “a vote of no confidence” in Takayama’s ability to coordinate departments.
Sen. Kurt Fevella, the Senate’s lone Republican, said his constituents have called for her to be fired.
“They don’t want you representing the state,” Fevella said. “You’re making the governor, you’re making us, you’re making the state look bad by being a filter.”
Linda Chu Takayama, Gov. David Ige’s chief of staff, is taking heat from a Senate committee for slow response to the coronavirus.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
The committee has been particularly frustrated with the administration’s slow action on its coronavirus response in the past month. For example, redeploying nonessential workers to short-staffed departments has taken weeks, and airport staff are still struggling to enforce mandatory quarantines for passengers.
But the senators have directed much of their frustrations at Takayama, who has been the governor’s representative in front of the panel.
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This week, after a meeting with the governor regarding proposed pay cuts, Dela Cruz asked departments for budget scenarios that the Legislature can use to build a new budget that can weather the economic fallout from the pandemic.
At Friday’s hearing, he accused Takayama of inappropriately continuing to filter all agency responses.
“I thought we’ve been through this drill already,” Dela Cruz said. “If there is a sense of urgency, I don’t understand why you continue to filter and censor information.”
Takayama said that she and the Department of Budget and Finance want to make sure the information is accurate before sending it to the committee.
In March before the pandemic ramped up in Hawaii, Takayama told departments not to respond to the Senate with their plans on how they would deal with COVID-19 and how the virus could affect their budgets. She’s said at past meetings that she wants all the departments to be on the same page.
But there’s still miscommunication between the departments and slow movement on actions to help the state cope with virus-related business, like getting more workers to overburdened unemployment offices.
In other committee meetings in the past month, department heads have told the senators that they are still waiting for direction from Takayama. In other instances, Takayama has said that they should be taking action themselves.
When the senators pressed her on the budget information on Friday, Takayama said, “I think you’re taking it wrong.”
“We want to make sure we follow our usual policy,” she said.
“These are not usual times,” Sen. Michelle Kidani told her.
Sen. Michelle Kidani was one of the senators frustrated with Takayama at a special COVID-19 committee hearing Friday.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Dela Cruz considered invoking a rarely used law that allows the committee to subpoena the government for information.
“Why do you want to make this so difficult?” he asked Takayama.
“I don’t think we are making this more difficult,” she said.
That ticked off Kidani.
“Do you realize there are people hurting out there, Linda?” Kidani said, adding that lawmakers were left out of discussions to cut pay for state employees. “And you think you aren’t obstructing information? Come on.”
The slow trickle of information coming from the administration was a primary reason why Senate President Ron Kouchi set up the committee in the first place. The senators have repeatedly cited a law that requires the state to supply the Legislature with information when asked.
Ige said his administration needs to shave off at least $1.5 billion of its $16 billion operating budget in the next 15 months. The governor has already put more than $11 million in spending restrictions on state agencies for the rest of this fiscal year, which ends June 30.
The governor has also put a hiring freeze on all the departments.
Gov. David Ige, right, still needs to work with lawmakers to come up with a budget that can sustain the state through the next fiscal year.
Cory Lum/Civil Beat
While Ige and his cabinet haven’t come to a decision on how to do those budget cuts, Takayama said there are a few options.
The governor could also raid millions of dollars locked in special funds, according to Takayama’s budget presentation.
Takayama said the governor put a freeze on all department vacancies to free up money, and may also put an automatic 10% budget restriction on the state at the start of the next fiscal year, July 1.
The Legislature has already considered taking 10% out of each department’s operating budget to shore up state funds.
Dela Cruz indicated at the hearing that the Legislature could move swiftly to pass a new budget once it’s able to reconvene.
State Attorney General Clare Connors said the Legislature has several options to meet remotely as long as it can explain those alternatives in its rules.
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Blaze Lovell is a reporter for Civil Beat and a graduate of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He was born and raised on Oahu. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter at @blaze_lovell