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Abercrombie off to rough start

By Star-Advertiser staff

LAST UPDATED: 6:27 p.m. HST, Aug 5, 2011

Gov. Neil Abercrombie won last year's election by 17 percent but his support has dropped significantly, which is not surprising. The longtime city, state and federal legislator campaigned with much optimism about "A New Day in Hawaii," but the state's economy would not cooperate. That is not his fault, of course, but it is a humbling lesson that he needs to absorb in moving forward.

A new Hawaii Poll puts his approval rating following this year's Legislature at 50 percent, which is not much for a Democrat in a heavily Democratic state. Abercrombie acknowledged last week that Democratic voters were right to have high expectations, "and I don't think we've met those expectations the way we should in the last six months."

Indeed, candidate Abercrombie said in a news conference a month before the election: "We intend to work with the existing (budget) numbers. … We will not be raising any taxes." That glib expectation did not come close to fruition.

He emphasized after winning the election that he was referring only to the general excise tax, which is Hawaii's most regressive generator of revenue. When the Democratic-controlled Legislature convened, Abercrombie proposed increasing the liquor tax and the tax rate on time shares, plus creating a new tax on soda, all of which were rejected by lawmakers.

Most controversial was his proposal to apply the income tax to pension benefits; Hawaii is one of only 10 states that do not tax pension earnings. Flawed wording in the bill created loud opposition, led by Hawaii's AARP, and the legislation was whittled down to the point that the projected revenue was not worth its enactment.

Abercrombie — who as the diplomatic candidate had credited campaign-trail listening tours for his big election win — could not refrain from belligerently referring to AARP, the senior citizens lobby, as "essentially a front for insurance companies." The accusation was off-base. The organization, which receives millions of dollars in royalties from insurers for its endorsement, was among the strongest supporters two years ago of the federal health care law, which was opposed by the insurance industry.

The governor also irritated public employee union members by proposing to cut off taxpayers' reimbursement to retired public workers and their spouses for state Medicare B services not included in general coverage. Pressured by the unions, legislators rejected Abercombie's proposal — though we agree with the governor that it was sound and should be enacted in next year's session if still needed.

As for the general excise tax, legislators temporarily eliminated what has been an exemption for numerous kinds of economic activity, including the loading and unloading of ships or aircraft. With his bolder tax proposals failing, Abercrombie said at legislative mid-session that he was "flexible" on GET issues — a waffling that exasperated legislative leaders and confused the public.

The governor can only have gained knowledge from his first take in dealing with legislators from his new executive perspective.

"We're in the game now," he said at the session's end. "And we've defined where we need to go."

More words of promise and confidence. For the sake of a still-ailing state economy, let's hope future successes do speak louder than words.

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