A call to action

Abercrombie urges lawmakers to change the tone of politics and fund public preschool
Honolulu Star Advertiser - January 23, 2013
Derrick DePledge and B.J. Reyes

Gov. Neil Abercrombie on Tuesday condemned the "virus of absolutism" that he said infects politics, and appealed to state lawmakers to set strident voices aside and take action on early childhood education, renewable energy, economic diversification and the state's debt.

Abercrombie, who was known for his own fiery rhetoric when he was a legislator, devoted a significant portion of his State of the State address to the deteriorating tone of politics. He urged lawmakers "not to get lost in the noise of the moment" and instead seize on what he said for many was an overwhelming mandate from voters in the November elections.

"Today it seems everyone's motivation is suspect. An opposing view is likely to be judged that of a fool or a tool of special interests. One's position is not merely faulty or misguided; it is sometimes characterized as the work of someone consciously plotting to destroy the environment or stealing public benefit for private gain or willfully corrupting the good and welfare of the community," the governor told the state House and Senate.

"This is not the model of dialogue and exchange that we want or that we need in Hawaii."

Abercrombie said the state has turned the fiscal corner from the recession but needs to stabilize emergency reserves by replenishing the hurricane relief fund and the rainy day fund. He asked lawmakers to direct $100 million a year for the next two fiscal years to start to pay down the unfunded liability in the public-worker health fund.

The governor urged lawmakers to put aside $10 million a year for the next two years for the Hawaii Growth Initiative, a state investment program intended to encourage innovation and help entrepreneurs move the state beyond its tourism- and military-dependent economy.

He recommended that lawmakers finance watershed protection either through an increase in the conveyance tax on luxury property sales of more than $2 million, which could raise $10 million a year, or through a 10-cent fee on single-use checkout bags, which could generate $15 million.

Abercrombie said he will establish a Hawaii Refinery Task Force to help the state respond to Tesoro's decision this month to close its refinery, and the possibility that Chevron will follow, which would leave the state with no refinery. He said ending the state's dependence on imported oil would require an equal commitment from everyone.

The governor asked lawmakers to embrace liquefied natural gas as an alternative that could reduce energy costs and the nation's carbon footprint.

"To do nothing puts everyone in the state at risk. Empty rhetoric and magical thinking about renewable energy avoids the question," the governor said.

Abercrombie said he would encourage the state Department of Taxation to work with lawmakers on a balanced approach to solar tax credits. This month the administration imposed administrative rules to rein in the solar tax credit because of the rising cost to the state over the past few years, but the rules, which are interim and can remain in effect for only 18 months, have been challenged by environmentalists in court.

The governor also said he would back a program that would allow consumers and businesses to finance solar through utility bills, potentially reducing the barrier of high upfront costs for photovoltaic installation.

Abercrombie said he would support devoting money collected from the barrel tax on oil to food and energy security programs, ending the diversion of money from the tax to help balance the state's budget.

The governor called for reopening Kulani Correctional Facility on Hawaii island by July 2014. The prison, which was closed by Gov. Linda Lingle for budget reasons, would be used to help inmates close to completing their sentences prepare to integrate back into communities.

Abercrombie also proposed increasing the minimum wage by $1.50 — to $8.75 an hour from $7.25 — in January 2014. The minimum wage has not been increased in six years in a state where the cost of living remains among the highest in the country.

"Industry and corporations do not lack for support in these halls," the governor said. "Neither should those who work the hardest for the least return."

Abercrombie renewed his pitch for a 21st-century schools initiative that would allow the state Department of Education to lease underutilized public school land for private development. The revenue generated from development projects would be used to modernize public schools with broadband and other modern infrastructure. The governor also repeated his goal of providing public school students with laptops, tablets or other digital devices within three years.

Abercrombie's most urgent call, however, was for early childhood education, which he described as the "greatest unfunded liability question of all." He said state-funded preschool for 4-year-olds would be an important foundation for children and for the state's future economic and community growth.

But House and Senate lawmakers have greeted the governor's preschool proposal cautiously, with questions about cost, curriculum and accountability.
Senate President Donna Mercado Kim (D, Kalihi Valley-Moanalua-Halawa) and House Majority Leader Scott Saiki (D, Downtown-Kakaako-McCully) said Tuesday that they believe a constitutional amendment would likely be necessary before using public money to finance private preschool. A constitutional amendment would not go before voters until 2014. House Speaker Joseph Souki (D, Wai¬hee-Wai¬ehu-Wai¬luku) suggested that the initial investment for preschool could come through grant-in-aid payments to get around the constitutional problem.

Kim and Souki said they are troubled by the potential cost of collective bargaining with public-sector labor unions, which they will factor in as they consider Abercrombie's new spending requests.

"There's also the dollar figure. There's a lot of things that have a price tag. And we need to see the big picture. We need to see what all the costs (are) and weigh everything together and then prioritize," Kim said.

Souki said Abercrombie left "a lot of expectations, so now we've got to fill in the expectations with the dollars."

Abercrombie's remarks on energy earned him a more positive reception because there is consensus that lawmakers could move toward on-bill financing for solar and changes to the solar tax credit and the barrel tax this session.

"When $4 billion to $6 billion are leaving the state each year to feed our addiction to petroleum, it's common sense that we do all we can to use more clean renewables and keep that money here at home," said Sen. Mike Gabbard (D, Kapo¬lei-Maka¬kilo), chairman of the Senate Energy and Environment Committee.

Abercrombie's address was less strident, and in many ways more substantive, than his previous two State of the State speeches. The governor turned down the volume, describing politics not as a hobby or pastime, but about doing good and making life better. He likened politics today to the game show "Jeopardy!" — everyone already has the answers and is just looking to frame the questions.

"I love legislating," the chief executive confessed near the end of his address, and he explained to reporters afterward that for the tone to change in Hawaii politics, he might have to change as well. "We need to elevate the discussion past that kind of confrontational politics," he said. "And to the degree I can talk to myself about that, I will."