Gov. David Ige will make his eighth and final State of the State speech to the Legislature on Monday as Hawaii slogs through yet another wave of Covid-19 infections, the latest surge in a pandemic that already upended many of the governor’s plans.
Ige made his first State of the State speech in 2015 as the state was on the upswing, headed into a rosy period of record high visitor arrivals and record low unemployment. It was a time of enormous opportunity.
State tax collections boomed, and Ige used five of his previous speeches to announce ambitious plans to try to cope with homelessness, remedy Hawaii’s lack of affordable housing, and ease the spiraling cost of living.
Hawaii lawmakers often fault Ige for failing to advance those goals, saying he offered big ideas in his speeches, and then failed to execute those plans. An example that often comes up is his 2017 proposal to double local food production by 2020, which never happened.
But it is also true the pandemic chewed holes in Ige’s agenda as it overwhelmed hospitals, shut down the economy and triggered record unemployment. It has demanded almost every resource the state could muster.
Ige’s final State of the State speech once again offers him a chance to rally the Legislature around the administration’s plans, but no one expects him to dazzle his audience. His public speaking style is wooden, and some of the material in his speeches has been uninspiring.
Early in his first State of the State speech, for example, the governor felt compelled to warn the listening lawmakers the state was spending too much money, and also praised the Department of Taxation’s computer modernization project.
“His forte has never been public speaking, and he would be the first one to say that,” said John Hart, professor of communications at Hawaii Pacific University. “He clearly doesn’t want to be there. This is clearly part of the job that he does not enjoy.”
“In the end, we’ll have to look more at his record than his speaking style,” Hart said.
It hasn’t helped that Ige’s relationship with the Legislature has been chilly. Early in the administration some speculated Ige would enjoy particularly close ties with lawmakers because he served for years in the House and Senate. But House Speaker Scott Saiki says that never happened.
Saiki said Ige “distanced himself” from the Legislature, which Saiki attributes partly to politics, and partly to personality. By the time Ige ran for reelection in 2018, the top leadership of both the House and Senate backed Colleen Hanabusa, who was Ige’s unsuccessful Democratic primary opponent.
With a few notable exceptions, the shaky relationship between the governor and lawmakers appeared to translate into limited cooperation on policy issues.
“What we’ve seen over the last seven years really is the Legislature taking the initiative,” said Saiki, who believes that was a good thing. “The Legislature should assert itself as a body that’s going to set policy for the state.”
Ige asked in 2016 for authority to spend nearly $500 million on a new jail to replace the Oahu Community Correctional Center, but lawmakers declined. Instead, they provided $10 million to begin planning the project.
Ige also made unsuccessful pitches to try to diversify the economy, seeking $10 million for a “HI Growth Initiative” in 2015, and asking lawmakers in 2016 to set aside $30 million in corporate income taxes over six years to support entrepreneurs and “innovation enterprises.”
House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke, who oversees appropriations in the House, said last week she had forgotten all about those old proposals, which never passed.
And Ige used his annual speeches three times — in 2019, 2020 and 2021 — to back an idea promoted by state Sen. Stanley Chang to build leasehold homes on state lands to help address Hawaii’s affordable housing crisis.
Lawmakers haven’t moved forward with that plan, either, although Chang has introduced another bill this year to authorize such leasehold developments.
Ige’s speeches always feature education initiatives, and he has had a degree of success with some of those.
In 2016 he announced a plan to cool thousands of classrooms — including 1,000 by the end of that year — but admitted in his speech the following year that effort didn’t move forward as quickly as he hoped it would.
But it finally did move, and Department of Education spokeswoman Nanea Kalani said about 6,000 classrooms have air conditioning today. About 5,000 others still do not.
He also made some progress promoting the Early College Program to allow high school students to earn college credits, and expanding the Hawaii Promise Program to help cover the cost of community college.
Of course, Ige also includes in his speeches the softer themes that tend to resonate in Hawaii, reminding his audiences in 2015 and 2019 that Hawaii will always be “home.” In 2018 he recalled his grandparents’ experiences as immigrants, and he referenced Hawaii’s plantation past in 2016.
Then the tone of Ige’s address changed last January, when he was a year into the chaos of Covid-19. It was arguably one of the best speeches of his tenure, reflecting some of his own anxiety over the central dilemma the pandemic presents for Hawaii.
“History might be kinder to him than most people are at the present moment.” — John Hart, HPU communications professor
Dan Boylan, who is working on a book about Ige, recalled that the governor “came down hard and fast” with a statewide stay-at-home order on March 25, 2020, and a 14-day quarantine for travelers the following day.
He faced some angry criticism for those decisions, particularly after the unemployment rate shot up to more than 30%, and the state’s obsolete unemployment insurance computer system was overwhelmed. But by last January, Ige was dug in.
“We will continue to take the tough actions necessary to keep our community safe, including the Safe Travels airport screening program,” he told lawmakers in his State of the State address last year. But he also admitted to a degree of uncertainty.
The problem, Ige told his audience, was that “in the face of a life-threatening virus, where is the sweet spot between ensuring the health of everyone and keeping the economy going? When the CDC is telling everyone not to travel, how do we sustain our hotels and all those small businesses who depend on our visitors?
“The struggle to find that answer has been apparent. The problem is a complex one. It calls for flexibility and a willingness to turn on a dime. That is not something that government has been good at. It is something that we must get better at,” he said.
Whatever Ige’s shortcomings have been in response to the pandemic, the state strategy clearly saved lives.
The state Department of Health reported 1,112 Covid-19 deaths in Hawaii as of Friday, which is a grim statistic for a small state. But if Hawaii had suffered the same per capita death rate as the rest of the nation during the pandemic, the death toll here would have been more than 3,600.
“I think it is possible that history might be kinder to him than most people are at the present moment,” Hart said. “In retrospect, he was able to make some very difficult, unpopular decisions with the coronavirus that might be looked upon as good for the state.”
It is famously difficult for mayors and governors to achieve big things in their final year in office, in part because the political realm tends to be dismissive of the wishes of an outgoing administration as it anticipates new leadership.
But Saiki said Ige can still push an agenda forward in his address on Monday.
“He should try, because we have a full legislative session ahead of us. He doesn’t leave office until December, so there’s opportunities for him if he wants to seize them,” he said. “He should at least try.”