Hawaii's budget deficit sets tone at Legislature's opening
• Photo gallery: Opening Day
On an opening day drained of traditional pageantry, state House and Senate leaders yesterday challenged their colleagues to tune out special interests and regain public confidence by dealing squarely with the state's $1.2 billion budget deficit.
The House and Senate opened the 60-day session with brief, mostly somber floor speeches intended to frame the weeks ahead as a time for meaningful collaboration and purpose.
Collaboration was also the theme last session, when the state was also facing a deficit, but quickly devolved into partisan warfare between majority Democrats and Republican Gov. Linda Lingle.
This session, the deficit is even more troublesome, and it is an election year, so voters will have the final word.
State House Speaker Calvin Say challenged the public to identify priorities and, if people do not want to pay more taxes and fees, to be prepared for the consequences.
"If you want more or better public services or facilities, be prepared to pay for them," said Say, D-20th (St. Louis Heights, Pälolo Valley, Wilhelmina Rise). "Conversely, if you do not want to pay more taxes or fees, be prepared to receive less public services or facilities."
State Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, D-21st (Nänäkuli, Mäkaha), told senators it could be the most difficult session of their legislative careers. The budget cuts may be more difficult than last year because they come on top of the state program restrictions and state worker furloughs and layoffs already approved.
"How will we in state government regain the confidence of our community?" Hanabusa asked. "How will we demonstrate that we are up to the task, that we can make a difference, and we have the vision and the leadership to take us to that promising tomorrow that everyone wants, and everyone has a right to expect of us?"
NO SPECIFICS YET
Say and Hanabusa did not outline any new proposals to contain the deficit yesterday, and Democrats do not plan the usual majority packages of bills that leadership considers priorities.
Specific steps to balance the budget will unfold over several weeks in hearings before the House Finance Committee and the Senate Ways and Means Committee. The initial blueprint will be the budget proposal submitted by Lingle, which uses a combination of spending cuts and revenue-generating ideas to close the gap, including the temporary diversion of hotel-room taxes from the counties.
The resolve to focus on the budget and not get sidetracked by controversy will be tested early. The Senate plans to take up a civil-unions bill as soon as tomorrow and, if it passes, it will move back to the House, which approved a similar version of the bill last session.
Senate leaders have said that civil unions should not distract from the budget because lawmakers are capable of handling several sensitive issues at the same time, but Say has said it could be a distraction because of its emotional nature.
Thousands of people opposing the civil unions bill attended a rally at the state Capitol on Sunday, and dozens of gay activists — many wearing rainbow colored lei — were in the Senate gallery and walking the halls yesterday.
GOP POLICY GOALS
While Democratic leaders sidestepped specifics, minority Republicans used their speeches to explain their policy goals.
State House Minority Leader Lynn Finnegan, R-32nd (Lower Pearlridge, 'Äiea, Hälawa), said the GOP would focus on the economy and education and called teacher furloughs a symptom of "our broken system."
Finnegan also cautioned against new taxes. "The more we tax, the less our hardworking people and their families have to manage their family budgets," she said.
State Sen. Sam Slom, R-8th (Kähala, Hawai'i Kai), told senators he disagreed with the decision by majority Democrats to cancel the traditional opening day flowers, music and food.
Slom said that if Democrats are serious about showing they understand the pain of the recession, they would promise not to raise taxes, contain rising unemployment insurance costs on businesses, pass legislation limiting medical malpractice liability , and reduce what he described as state spending, waste and debt.
"We can turn this pessimism around with genuine positive efforts backed by political courage and long-denied change in Hawai'i," Slom said.
Gov. Linda Lingle watched opening day from the Senate gallery, while Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona was in the House gallery, a departure from normal practice, when the state's top leaders usually sit with lawmakers and other dignitaries on the chamber floors.
Lingle, speaking to reporters afterward, said she wanted to hear more from lawmakers on job creation, which will be a theme of her State of the State speech on Monday.
"We need to really look at job creation, getting the economy moving, not just balancing the budget," she said. "That you have to do. But that's at a minimum. We need to get beyond that and really talk about the future of education, job creation, energy independence, and that's what I'll do on Monday with a very robust set of proposals."
The mood of the day was somber and businesslike, with no live entertainment or extravagant buffets after orders from House and Senate leaders to scale down.
Several lawmakers discreetly offered guests drinks and snacks, and a few advocates showed up with cookies and gift baskets.
State Rep. Bob Herkes, D-5th (Ka'u, S. Kona), who said he has been to about 10 opening days, said he found yesterday's low-key proceedings refreshing.
Most years, Herkes' third-floor office would be teeming with food and visitors. Yesterday, people were offered some cake — sugar-free cake.
"It was always fun," Herkes said of previous opening days. "But it's time to get serious."
People walking around the hallways said they understood, too.
Mason Chung, a member of the Unite Here! Local 5 Political Action Committee, said the smaller crowds made it easier to get into lawmakers' offices and talk business.
"We have a sense that representatives and senators mean business and that's a little comforting in these times," Chung said.