Gov. David Ige today announced two of the boldest initiatives of his administration by proposing to restructure about half of the state’s public elementary schools to accommodate state-funded preschools, and to lease out state lands for condominium developments.
Ige’s preschool proposal, which was included in his State of the State address at the state Capitol this morning, would move sixth-graders into middle schools across the state, freeing up space in elementary schools for preschool classes.
“First and foremost, we must create a universal statewide high-quality public preschool system that will give every child in Hawaii a head-start on learning,” Ige said. “Ultimately, we will need more than 300 public pre-K classrooms. Clearly, this is a long-term goal. But we don’t have to wait until we have funding for all of it.”
Ige’s plan would have the most impact on the neighbor islands, where more elementary schools include sixth-grade classes. Ige noted that preschools are especially lacking on the neighbor islands, and “that gives us a tremendous opportunity to kick start this effort, initially in communities where they are most needed.”
Ige said he will also introduce a plan to build and sell condominiums on state lands that would be leased out for 99 years. Ige did not say specifically where those projects would be developed, but said they will be built along the city rail line and on “other underutilized state lands.”
“This legislation will be critical to unlocking the potential for thousands of new affordable housing units to be built on state lands on all islands,” he said. By developing the leasehold projects on state property, the state will be able to “determine the terms” of any resales of the affordable units, he said.
That may be important because unrestricted resales of what were once affordable units in Hawaii’s tight housing market cause the prices of those homes to increase until they are far beyond the reach of middle-income families.
Ige also used his address to state lawmakers today to claim some success in coping with homelessness, which he said has been reduced by 18 percent over the past two years, and noted his proposed budget for the next two years includes $315 million for housing.
He also proposed pumping more funding into the state’s Legacy Land Conservation Program, which provides grants to community organizations and government agencies to purchase and protect land with exceptional or threatened resources. That program operates under the state Department of Land and Natural Resources.
The state currently funds the program with up to $6.8 million per year in conveyance tax revenue, but Ige proposed lifting that cap.
“If we want green spaces, if we want to grow our own food, if we want places for recreation, if we want clean, fresh water, if we want the environment that has been so central to Hawaii’s life, we need to have special lands in public hands,” Ige said.
Ige also said he will be introducing bills to increase the state’s minimum wage of $10.10 per hour to something closer to a “living wage,” and said he wants to provide more funding for the counties from the state’s hotel room tax revenues. The state currently caps the counties’ share of hotel room taxes at $103 million a year.
Ige has emerged from the hard-fought 2018 re-election campaign at the peak of his political power, a time when some governors would focus on one or more “legacy” projects that would serve as crowning achievements for their eight years in office.
But Ige must deal this year with lawmakers who have often been openly critical of his leadership, who supported his opponent in the Democratic primary last year, and who seem quick to disagree with him today.
Leading lawmakers in the House in particular have publicly criticized Ige for failing to do more to address homelessness, the shortage of affordable housing and illegal vacation rentals.
Top leaders in both the House and Senate supported former U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa for governor last year in her unsuccessful Democratic primary race for governor.
Lawmakers have sometimes complained that with the exception of Ige’s “Cool the Schools” initiative to air condition or lower temperatures in more than 1,000 additional Hawaii classrooms, Ige has generally not submitted proposals that are particularly engaging to lawmakers and the public.
Instead, the governor often advanced workaday initiatives such as replenishing the state’s rainy day reserve fund to prepare for the next recession, setting money aside to pay down the state’s unfunded pension and health care liabilities, and upgrading the old and inefficient computer systems for paying public employees and collecting taxes.
Ige’s proposals today were considerably more ambitious and colorful.
Ige at times has shrugged off his somewhat chilly relationship with lawmakers, noting whatever they may think of him, they approve the vast majority of his proposed budgets each year. Once his administration’s budget is law, the Legislature is not particularly relevant to the day-to-day operations of the state.
But the governor spent much of opening day of the Legislature last week visiting lawmakers’ offices in an apparent attempt to thaw some of his relationships there, and he told his audience this morning he has been meeting with House and Senate leaders to find common ground “to shape a budget that best serves all the people of Hawaii.”
Ige also noted the gridlock in Washington, D.C. that has shut down portions of the federal government for 31 days and counting, the longest shutdown in U.S. history with no end in sight.
“We have a duty and responsibility to do our jobs and do them in partnership with each other,” Ige told lawmakers and the audience. “That is the least those folks up there in the gallery — the people we all work for — expect.”
2019 State of the State Add… by on Scribd