The governor of Hawaii began his fourth State of the State address Tuesday asking lawmakers to “set aside our political preoccupations” and reflect instead on public service and the concerns of others.

Yet, the major theme in Neil Abercrombie‘s speech was that the state has an $844 million budget surplus and that “hard choices,” “tough decisions” and “fiscally prudent decisions” made it possible.

The turnaround from a deficit to a surplus is the top accomplishment listed in the administration’s list of achievements, released just a few days ago. And it’s the top theme of the governor’s 2014 re-election campaign, which over the weekend launched its first campaign advertisement.

Just hours after the State of the State, there was yet another reminder of the state of the campaign and the blurring of the political and the legislative. Abercrombie’s campaign emailed out a link to a video clip of its first re-election video, titled State of Our State, that of course plays up Hawaii’s fiscal health under the governor’s leadership.

Talk about staying on message. And talk about “political preoccupations.”

In his remarks, the governor did credit the Legislature and a general commitment to “shared sacrifices,” which helped make the economic turnaround possible. But now that the state has all this extra money, Abercrombie said, it’s time to spend it — namely on kupuna, through tax exemptions and increased home care.

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Waiting to go on.

Indeed, the governor mentioned seniors or kupuna more than a dozen times in his speech, and cynical observers couldn’t help but think that Abercrombie was making an overt appeal to the most important voter bloc. Remember, this is the same guy who in his first State of the State proposed taxing pension incomes, something that enraged AARP Hawaii and led to the proposal’s quick death. But on Tuesday, Abercrombie vowed to protect pensions from taxation, a promise that goes against House Speaker Joe Souki‘s recent proposal to tax pensions of more than $100,000.

After the State of the State, David Ige, the chairman of Senate Ways and Means, and Sylvia Luke, chairwoman of House Finance, threw political cold water on the governor’s legislative-slash-electoral plans. Speaking to reporters, they said that the Legislature deserves a lot of credit for the general fund balance, and that what is important now is for the state to carefully consider any spending request or revenue reduction with long-term consequences in mind.

Luke wryly observed that lawmakers had cut close to $800 million in the governor’s budget requests during his three years in office, including $250 million last session.

Echoing Luke, Ige said, “That’s why we are going to continue to take a cautious approach when it comes to the budget.”

Ige, who is running against Abercrombie in the Aug. 9 Democratic primary, said it was important to keep in mind that tax collections to date are at minus .7 percent. Despite an optimistic forecast for growth, Ige warned that the state is taking in significantly less money.

“We’re concerned about the budget and making sure that it’s balanced and that we can afford it. We need to live within our means and afford any proposals that we’ll be considering,” he said.

Ige also seemed miffed that Abercrombie was suddenly embracing senior citizens. He said it was the Legislature and senators like his colleague Suzanne Chun Oakland who took the lead as champions for kupuna and setting up programs like Kupuna Care. (The governor wants to increase its budget by $4.2 million and make it permanent.)

Other things the governor called for — more money for programs to control invasive species, mitigate climate change and support early childhood development — Ige pointed out were already part of the majority Democrats’ legislative package. Neither he nor Luke would elaborate on the governor’s call for an increase in the minimum wage to at least $8.75 an hour, saying that the matter was “under discussion.” (Abercrombie made the same request in his 2013 address.)

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Speaking with reporters.

As for early education, Ige and Luke were perplexed the administration, in Luke’s words, “had changed its course” and was now pushing for a public-private-sector model. Was there now a need, they asked, to go through with a constitutional amendment question this fall asking voters to fund private programs with state money?

Ige, perhaps with the election in mind, used the words “flip-flop” to describe the governor’s change in position. He said the Legislature’s budget priority would be to “ensure that it is sustainable” and that core services fundamental to state government are taken care of before things like spending more money on programs can even be considered.

“We don’t want to give people false promises,” Ige said. “We think it’s irresponsible to promise things that we cannot sustain.”

Abercrombie has a different perspective on managing the state’s finances.

“My administration’s budget philosophy ensures our budget is sustainable,” he said in his speech. “Our financial plan accommodates fluctuations in revenue projections in the years to come.”

The only other words the governor mentioned in his address even more than “seniors” and “kupuna” were “keiki” and “children.” But, even though kids can’t vote, it still sounded politically motivated. 

“I realize this is an election year,” he said. “Political agendas and ambitions are being formulated. But let us take children out of these equations.”

Sam Slom, the Senate’s only Republican, wasn’t buying Abercrombie’s shtick and called him on it.

“The governor’s State of the State will be memorable mostly for its blandness, lack of anything significantly new, and its brevity,” he said in a statement. “It seemed more like a campaign speech than a review of the state of our state.”

Abercrombie’s speech lasted far less than the hour that had been booked for the House chambers. He rarely diverted from the prepared text and made few humorous remarks, as is his usual practice. And he began and ended the speech by honoring the dead.

The former was a moment of silence to honor Hawaii National Guard Sgt. Drew Scobie of Kailua, who died earlier this month in Afghanistan. The latter was an extended reference to Loretta Fuddy, the Department of Health director who died in a plane crash off Molokai in December. Abercrombie asked lawmakers to pay “specific attention” to make funding for the DOH’s Early Intervention Services a priority to help children with developmental delays from birth to age 3.

“This will serve as a fitting tribute and appropriate legacy to honor Loretta,” he said, noting that she was “their champion.”

Graveyard tributes aside, the governor broke no new ground and took no bold risks in the speech, choosing instead to reiterate goals along the lines of issues he has already pushed for.

They include bringing more Hawaii prisoners back from the mainland (it will require building new prisons here, he said), setting aside Turtle Bay land for conservation (Ige noted that no governor had succeeded in doing so), working to reduce domestic violence and human trafficking (he singled out praise for his wife, Nancie Caraway, and her work on these issues) and pushing for programs to end homelessness (he asked the Legislature to accept an interagency council’s action plan).

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In the House chamber.

Other legislative leaders were less rough in their reviews but did not seem persuaded by the speech.

Souki said he was pleased that the governor seemed to have adopted his own plan to give many seniors a break. House Majority Leader Scott Saiki said he was disappointed not to hear the governor bring up the Hawaii Community Development Authority, which Saiki wants to clamp down on (there’s even a bill to repeal the controversial agency), or discuss what to do about the troubled Hawaii Health Connector, which has had technical glitches and failed to enroll many residents.

Meantime, Senate President Donna Mercado Kim expressed mild pleasure that the governor wants to help seniors and that Abercrombie was coming around to the Legislature’s views on pre-school. As for the Health Connector, Kim called it a financial “black hole” that the state would be better off avoiding. Let the state auditor report back its findings, she said, and the Legislature will look at the matter closely.

Five hours or so after the State of the State concluded, there was one other reminder of the politics of the day. Ige’s gubernatorial campaign released its own response to the speech.

Ige the candidate made many of the same remarks as Ige the WAM chairman, including how the governor made “promises that cannot be kept,” about the necessity for a “responsible state budget” and the assertion that the $844 million surplus “is a direct result” of cuts the Legislature made to the governor’s proposed budgets.

“I am disappointed that growing the state’s economy is not a priority of the governor,” Ige said in his campaign email. “I believe that economic diversity, job creation and plans for expansion of our tourism industry are critical priorities.”

Economic diversity, job creation and expansion of tourism — three things that were not priorities in Abercrombie’s fourth State of the State. Looks like David Ige knows a thing or two about mixing politics and governing, too.

Civil Beat fact-checked parts of the governor’s speech. Read Anita Hofschneider’s story here.

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