With the state Legislature entering the final weeks of the 2019 session, this is shaping up to be a notably lousy year for Gov. David Ige.
In his ambitious State of the State address to lawmakers in January, Ige proposed an expansion of preschool programs operating from public school classrooms, but the Legislature appears poised to significantly chop the funding for that initiative below the level that Ige requested. And things appear to be headed downhill from there.
Lawmakers thus far have declined to provide $125 million that Ige requested to help finance the Ala Wai flood control project, and once again they have shelved the Ige administration’s proposal to create an airport authority to manage the state’s airports.
Earlier this year the Legislature rejected Ige proposals for increases in the state’s gasoline and weight taxes and vehicle registration fees to collect an extra $40 million to help pay for road maintenance.
Lawmakers also shelved Ige’s plan to spend an additional $19 million a year to expand the Hawaii Promise scholarship program for the neediest students at the University of Hawaii’s four-year colleges.
In his State of the State speech, Ige also proposed increasing funding for the Legacy Land Conservation Program to purchase and protect “green spaces” and agricultural lands, but the administration bills that were supposed to accomplish that are dead for the year.
Meanwhile, Ige has encountered pushback on some of his Cabinet choices. The governor announced he would reappoint Hawaiian Homes Commission Chairwoman Jobie Masagatani and appoint Rod Becker as state director of finance, but both nominees met resistance in the state Senate. In the end, Ige did not formally nominate either of them.
When asked about the difficulties he had getting his initiatives passed this year, Ige replied in a written statement Tuesday that “until the Legislature concludes, there is still the possibility that initiatives outlined in my State of the State will be funded.”
“I have not given up hope. Anything can happen until the session ends,” he said.
Some bright spots
In fact, not everything is gloom and doom for Ige at the Legislature. House and Senate lawmakers Tuesday gave preliminary approval to an increase in the state minimum wage, which Ige pitched in his State of the State speech, and also seem willing to approve an increase in the rental car vehicle surcharge that the administration requested.
House lawmakers also gave preliminary approval Tuesday to Senate Bill 78, which would provide more than $1.3 million to open 10 new preschool classrooms. That would be a partial victory if it passes as is, since Ige originally sought more than $3 million to open 22 additional preschool classrooms.
House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said both lawmakers and the governor have had to scale back their plans for new initiatives and spending as growth in the state economy has weakened and growth in tax collections has slowed.
“This year has been a very fiscally tight year, so I think he is assessing what is important and what are some of the initiatives that we all need to pull back,” she said. “I think we both agree that we need to look at stabilizing the current government services as opposed to adding new ones.”
Ala Wai project funding
Perhaps the largest single administration proposal hanging in the balance in the final weeks of the session is Ige’s request for $125 million in capital improvement funds for the Ala Wai Canal project, a major flood mitigation project that will cost $345 million.
Last year Congress appropriated $345 million for the project. The local partner — presumably the state or city — can choose to pay 35 percent of that amount upfront as the local match or can pay the 35 percent back to the federal government over 30 years.
The federal government needs to sign an agreement with a local entity that will maintain the stream areas and the flood control project, Luke said. She said the state Department of Land and Natural resources does not have the capacity to maintain the streams or flood control project, and state law prohibits the state from doing so anyway.
Lawmakers initially believed the city would sign such an agreement, but “the city is now refusing,” she said.
“Now that the city has reversed its position and is refusing to sign, the state is not in a position to even be looking at any kind of funding,” Luke said. “The city needs to sign first before we even entertain any kind of funding.”
Luke never held a hearing on Senate Bill 77, which is the Ala Wai funding bill, but lawmakers could still insert funding for the project into other measures.
Robert Kroning, director of the city Department of Design and Construction, said the city is very much willing to sign a project partnership agreement with the Army Corps of Engineers that obligates the city to maintain the flood control project, but the details of that agreement are still being negotiated.
Kroning said the city and state agreed verbally that the state would provide the local matching funds, and “without the funding, that throws a wrench in the mix. We’re still hopeful the governor will figure out or the Legislature will figure out how to provide the funding for this.”
The city needs the state to sign onto the agreement as a partner, and Kroning said the state can legally do so. But he said he does not expect the agreement will move forward without any funding.
SESSION OF REJECTION
A number of Gov. David Ige’s initiatives appear to be dead or dying in the final weeks of the 2019 session, including:
>> $125 million in matching funding for the Ala Wai flood control project.
>> $19 million to expand the Hawaii Promise college scholarship program.
>> Proposals to increase the state gas and vehicle weight taxes and registration fees.
>> Plans to increase funding for the Legacy Land Conservation Program.
>> Proposal for an airport authority to manage state airports.