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Abercrombie pitches new priorities and new taxes

By B.J. Reyes

LAST UPDATED: 12:49 p.m. HST, Jan 24, 2011

Recalling the "New Day" theme from his campaign, Gov. Neil Abercrombie promised to confront head-on the challenge of an $844 million budget deficit through a restructuring of government and proposals for new taxes.

"A new day for me begins, I hope, with an honest account of the state of our government," Abercrombie said at the outset of his first State of the State address.

Getting choked up, Abercrombie spent the first five minutes of his speech reminiscing about his time in the Legislature, recognizing former colleagues such as Sens. Clayton Hee and Malama Solomon and former Gov. Ben Cayetano, with whom he also served in the House.

Among the specific proposals outlined in his 46-minute speech, Abercrombie said he would seek a hike in the alcohol tax and explore taxes on soda and similar beverages.

"We can no longer ignore the fact that consumption of these and other such products contribute to rising public health costs," Abercrombie said.

He promised a repeal of the state tax deduction on state taxes -- phased in because it impacts all who itemize -- and a plan to treat pension income the same as all other income for tax purposes.

On restructuring government, Abercrombie said he plans to redistribute funds from the Hawaii Tourism Authority to basic government services such as environmental protection, improvement of public facilities and advancement of culture and the arts.

"We need to re-prioritize," he said.

In what he called the most "emotionally trying" subject faced by his administration, Abercrombie said the government would have to "scale back" social services for which there is no longer federal money. He cited some programs implemented by the Department of Human Services using federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families money that may no longer be coming to states.

The administration also would need to cut back on benefits to Medicaid patients in order to sustain health coverage for needy individuals and families, he said.

With the cuts needed to maintain core government services, Abercrombie said he was open to ideas, but would not entertain any which sought to "shift responsibility to someone else or some future time."

Abercrombie also outlined new construction projects that would take a "systematic and integrated" approach.

He also called for a "definitive" decision on Aloha Stadium and any future stadium, saying some CIP money for the stadium would be diverted to other projects.

"Right now, multi-million dollar plans to extend the life of Aloha Stadium by 20 years could take 40 years to implement," he said.

He called education his top priority, and called on the Legislature to fast-track a bill to outline the process for the governor to appoint members of the Board f Education, as approved by voters.

"I'm prepared to act now," he said.

He also highlighted a recommitment to the preservation of the Hawaiian language, calling for development of a "university-within-a-university" as the next step to furthering the Punana Leo indigenous language program at the University of Hawaii.

Senate President Shan Tsutsui said the Legislature looked forward to working with the new Democratic governor, and a new spirit of collaboration while recognizing that the two sides will not always agree.

Afterward, House Speaker Calvin Say said all of Abercrombie's proposals would have to be considered as lawmakers confront the state's budget deficit.

"Some of them were controversial, but at the end of the day, we'll take them up," he said.

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