The overage comes as Luke, the former longtime House Finance chair, is poised to more than double her office budget to more than $2.3 million for the next fiscal year.

Just months after taking office, Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke has blown through her department’s budget and is asking the state finance office to find extra money to cover salary increases she gave her staff. 

The shortfall of $48,623 came about after Luke decided to pay some of her staff members substantially more than her predecessor, Gov. Josh Green, did. The pay for the deputy chief of staff position got a more than $25,000 boost, from $104,232 to $130,000. What used to be administrative assistant jobs paying around $40,000 to $60,000 are now director-level positions with salaries of $60,000 to $80,000.

Luke’s office is now asking the Department of Budget and Finance to find funds elsewhere in the state budget to fix the problem. Budget and Finance did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment.

Lieutenant Governor Sylvia Luke staff photo 2023
Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke spent money she didn’t have on staff salaries. (Lieutenant Governor’s office/2023)

Luke, meanwhile, is poised to more than double her office budget as of July 1, when the next fiscal year begins. At her request, lawmakers increased her budget from less than $1 million to more than $2.3 million. That includes six additional staff positions for a total of 17. (Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated the current budget is less than $900,000. That is the allotment for salaries, not the whole office.)

As of July 1, some of the office’s salaries are much higher than what Green paid. Special assistants are set to make $130,000 annually compared with $78,168 in fiscal year 2022.

For Luke to spend more than she was allotted this fiscal year is highly unusual, according to Beth Giesting, director emeritus of the nonprofit Hawaii Budget and Policy Center.

Lt. Governor elect Sylvia Luke and Governor elect Josh Green flash the shaka at the Hawaii Convention Center.
Lt. Gov. Sylvia Luke, the former House Finance chair, took over the office in December from Gov. Josh Green, her predecessor. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

It’s particularly surprising, Giesting said, given that Luke was the chair of the House Finance Committee before she was elected lieutenant governor.

The House Finance chair has a lot of influence over the state budget and other spending decisions.

“I have never heard of anything like this,” Giesting said. “It does take me aback a bit to see (somebody) who was previously the head of the finance committee be so blithely unconcerned about blowing through a budget.”

It’s also a potential violation of a state law that says any officer who makes expenditures in “excess of an allotment … shall be deemed guilty of neglect of official duty and shall be subject to removal from office.” Those found in violation are also liable to the state for the amount overspent.

Whether Luke will face any consequences is unclear. Attorney General Anne Lopez’s office declined to comment.

In an interview, Luke said she knew early on she would exceed the current fiscal year's budget in part because of her big vision for the job.

State law says lieutenant governors embody a role similar to a secretary of state, in charge of handling legal name changes and certifying paperwork. Luke wants to do more.

"When we took office, one of the things that both the governor and I discussed was about taking on kind of a more expansive role as compared to prior lieutenant governors," Luke said. "It didn't have the personnel that would be needed to take on large initiatives."

Luke didn't want to wait until July 1 to beef up her staff.

"That's asking: Why don't we wait on initiatives?" she said.

The staffing allowed her to pursue her priorities, including expanding access to preschool and broadband, she said.

She has no regrets about the excess spending. Luke expects Budget and Finance to cover the shortfall with unused funds from other departments, and she said she will issue a reimbursement in the new fiscal year.

"Thanks to the good staff that I brought on, now we're beginning to see results," she said.

However, asked whether it would be OK for other departments to spend money they don't have, Luke said: "No."

"They expected us to come and hit the ground running and reimagine and revamp the lieutenant governor's office," she said. "So I think there was a different charge placed on this office."

Luke said she doesn't feel it was irresponsible because she was "transparent" about it. She said she told state lawmakers about the projected shortfall during the session in hopes they would fill in the gap.

“We were going under the assumption that it would be taken care of," she said.

But that wasn't the case. The reason why is unclear. Messages left with the chairs of the House and Senate money committees were not returned.

"A lot of things did not make it because of the last-minute chaos," Luke said. "And this was one of the things that fell through, to make our office whole."

Colin Moore, a political scientist at the University of Hawaii, said Luke is displaying "a certain level of arrogance that I don't think is a good look."

"Pretty much anyone else would be in real trouble if this had happened in their department," he said. "It's not a clerical error, it's not an accounting error. It was done knowing full well they were overspending. That seems hard to excuse."

Mayors speak to Finance Committee Chairs WAM Senator Donovan Dela Cruz and Rep Sylvia Luke.
Sylvia Luke was counting on her former legislative colleagues to give her the extra funds. They didn't come through, although they did more than double her budget for next year. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2020)

If another lieutenant governor had done such a thing while Luke was House Finance chair, it "might not have gone so well," Moore said.

Luke took over the lieutenant governor's office from Green in the middle of a fiscal year. She said there were some residual costs on the books, including car leases and credit card bills, that she did not anticipate. But Luke said she's tried to cut costs where she can, like canceling the leasing of plants for the office.

Big state offices rent greenery and have staff come in to water them, Luke said.

"We canceled that, and they came to repossess a bunch of plants," she said.

Former Hawaii Budget and Finance director Kalbert Young, who now works for the University of Hawaii, said it's not unprecedented for a department head to go over their budget. The law prohibits it, but in practice, it happens.

"In my opinion, if I was the B&F director, I wouldn't view this as excessive," he said. "I would not be surprised with these types of requests in the first year of a new administration."

Members of the executive branch tend to think they have a mandate from voters to expand the scope of their duties, according to Moore. That may be defensible, he said, but there are limits.

"I think the work is valuable but you've got to operate within the constraints of the funds appropriated to your office," he said.

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