The lieutenant governor is walking back her request for a bailout from the state budget office.

Following a wave of public criticism, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke says that her office will likely avoid a previously forecasted budget shortfall that threatened to put her in legal jeopardy.

Her staff found money in the budget that she was unaware of previously, she said on Friday. According to Luke, the amount just so happens to be approximately the same amount she needed: around $50,000.

“The frustration and anger people felt, I completely understand. And I would be angry too,” she said in an interview in her State Capitol conference room.

“It’s just thanks to many of the staff and people who work in my office, we were able to make adjustments and find ways to ensure that we were not over budget. We were able to pay for all the expenses within the allotted amount.”

Lt. Governor Sylvia Luke Lt. Gov. budget
Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke said her budget will stay in the black after all. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

As of last month, Luke’s office was short $48,623 and asked the Hawaii Department of Budget and Finance to bail her out, according to an email obtained by Civil Beat. Such requests are usually made for emergencies. But the notice from Luke’s office to Budget and Finance specifically cited salary costs.

When Luke took office in December, she decided to pay her staff significantly more than her predecessor, Gov. Josh Green, had paid his staff. Some aides are making $20,000 more than Green’s employees were making, with three staffers set to make $130,000 or more annually.

Luke knew early on that she was pushing her budget into the red. She told lawmakers about it in January. But she said on Friday that she had hoped to be able to sort it out by the end of the fiscal year, June 30.

As of last week though, Luke told Civil Beat she was hoping Budget and Finance would cover for her using unspent funds from other departments.

That didn’t go over well with her constituents, especially as conflict rages at the Honolulu City Council over outsized proposed salary increases there.

On Friday, Luke acknowledged people’s anger and disappointment, particularly since she spent years as the chair of the House Finance Committee. Joining the executive branch has been a “growing experience” and time of reflection, she said.

welcome sign Lieutenant LT. Governor office gov
Sylvia Luke is changing the scope of the lieutenant governor’s office to advocate for the expansion of preschool and broadband. (Kevin Fujii/Civil Beat/2023)

“I expect better of myself,” she said.

“Coming from a background of holding other departments responsible and accountable, I expect to be better.”

It’s a valuable lesson for other departments as well, she said.

“It’s through reporting like this where, maybe another agency will look at it and be like: OK. I understand,” she said. “And they better be careful with taxpayer’s money and they better not go over the budget.”

State law forbids public officials from overspending their budgets. It states those who spend in excess “shall be subject to removal from office.” 

As long as Luke’s financial problems are resolved by June 30 though, she should be in the clear.

“We are not yet at the end of the fiscal year,” Attorney General Anne Lopez said in a statement.

Luke said she’ll make up the difference with reimbursements from the Department of Public Safety that her office is owed. The LG pays upfront expenses for her security detail and their travel expenses and Public Safety pays Luke’s office back, she said.

Public Safety currently owes the LG’s office an amount that exceeds the projected shortfall, according to Luke. Luke said she didn’t know exactly how much that is though.

Asked to provide a specific accounting of the office’s current finances, the LG’s Administrative Services Director Alyssa Pascul said the office’s computer system was unable to provide it on demand.

A message left with the Department of Public Safety’s spokeswoman was not returned on Friday afternoon.

Luke said she felt some “angst” when she realized she was spending more money than she had. She said she was even prepared to pay it out of her own pocket to even things out.

“I was ready to do it,” she said. “We did have that conversation last week.”

But there’s apparently no need for that now. Luke said she told Budget and Finance its assistance is no longer needed but that she’s still in discussion with them. The Budget and Finance office did not respond to a request for comment.

Green’s office was also roped into discussions about the shortfall. In a statement, he said will ensure the administration responsibly handles the budget for all departments.

“I’ve instructed our Budget and Finance Director to make sure that if anyone goes over budget, we make sure the balance is made up appropriately and immediately, in a way that is accountable to Hawaii’s taxpayers,” he said.

Luke said in her case, that won’t be necessary.

“He and I have a really good relationship, and he’s willing to assist in any way, but at this point in time, it’s my responsibility to come within budget,” she said. “It’s not really his responsibility.”

Help power our public service journalism

As a local newsroom, Civil Beat has a unique public service role in times of crisis.

That’s why we’re committed to a paywall-free website and subscription-free content, so we can get vital information out to everyone, from all communities.

We are deploying a significant amount of our resources to covering the Maui fires, and your support ensures that we can pivot when these types of emergencies arise.

Make a gift to Civil Beat today and help power our nonprofit newsroom.

About the Author