HONOLULU — Gov. Neil Abercrombie told the state Legislature on Monday that it's time to move forward and leave behind the drama of the recent past, saying lawmakers have an opportunity to maintain economic momentum, bolster education and help provide older Hawaii residents better access to long-term support.
The Democratic governor, in his annual State of the State address, said Hawaii's economic recovery has been steady over the past year and that there were several positive signs, including growth in visitor arrivals and expenditures, increased general excise tax revenue and a decline in initial unemployment claims.
Abercrombie said it was critical for lawmakers to continue the positive thrust achieved through the labor savings and budget cuts that got the state through a period of weak tax revenues.
To further bolster Hawaii's economic recovery, a primary focus will be placed on the construction industry, where nearly $2.3 billion in pending projects and a recent bond and refinancing sale will combine to spur immediate job creation, Abercrombie said.
"These New Day Work Projects were chosen because they not only address critical infrastructure needs, but more importantly, they are primed and ready to go," he said. "We looked for projects that were not mired in permitting delays, or only in design and planning stages, but those that are ready to provide impact now."
Before he began, Abercrombie called for a moment of silence in memory of two Honolulu police officers who recently died in the line of duty.
Garret Davis, 28, was killed Saturday when his car was hit from behind as he stopped to help a stalled motorist on the H-1 freeway. Eric Fontes, 45, was killed in September during a traffic stop on Farrington Highway.
Abercrombie extended his deepest sympathies to the families of both officers, saying their deaths caused him to reflect on the importance of protecting people committed to public service. He said it was important to appreciate their work every day.
Early on in his speech, Abercrombie addressed the contentious contract negotiations with the Hawaii State Teachers Association, saying he will continue to press the union for an agreement, and in the meantime will continue to focus on progress under Race to the Top.
"We wanted to cross the Race to the Top finish line with HSTA. Make no mistake, we will cross that finish line. Our children deserve no less," he said.
The teachers union last week voted against ratification of a new contract.
In addition to Race to the Top, which focuses on kindergarten through high school education, Abercrombie said investing in an early education plan is critical — and he will be asking lawmakers for a $1 million appropriation to address early education issues, as well as childhood health programs. Another $2.9 million would go toward the Hawaii Broadband Initiative, which would enhance the state's online services and provide laptops for all Hawaii's public school students.
Abercrombie said he does not plan another push for a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages after gaining little legislative support last session. Instead, he has proposed establishing a task force to identify and implement a solution to health problems, such as obesity, associated with the sugary drinks.
Early education and care for children is essential, Abercrombie said, stressing to assembled lawmakers: "Failure to act now virtually ensures that our children will be left behind. If they are not our top priority, then we no longer know the meaning of the word."
At the other end of the spectrum, Abercrombie discussed the need to provide retiring Baby Boomers easier access to services and long-term support. He said he will request $1.4 million for one-stop shops to assist seniors facing the challenges of aging and restricted mobility.
"The centers will streamline eligibility determination, minimize the need to navigate multiple bureaucracies, and facilitate informed choices about long-term care," he said.
Other initiatives unveiled in the speech include a $5 million investment in protecting watersheds on all islands, consolidating the state's technology infrastructure, working to complete a $200 million ceded lands settlement with the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, reducing dependence on imported oil and continued work on issues of homelessness.
According to Abercrombie, Hawaii Island will take the lead in building a sustainable economy based on isle residents' self-sufficiency in food and energy. A detailed plan will be unveiled in a few months, he said.
As the state looks for ways to tap into more natural resources for energy, Abercrombie said, "The system cannot maintain itself solely with sources that shift with the changing winds or the sun hiding behind the clouds."
He's proposing making electrical grids reliable across the state by connecting all islands with an undersea cable.
Abercrombie also asked the Legislature to consider making the TV and Film Tax Credit permanent to continue attracting highly-acclaimed productions, such as the film "The Descendants."
Senate President Shan Tsutsui and House Speaker Calvin Say both responded favorably to Abercrombie's remarks, which in some ways echoed their own speeches on Opening Day. Both leaders expressed optimism on Jan. 18 that the House, Senate and Abercrombie administration will be able to work together to work toward common goals.
Tsutsui, D-Wailuku-Kahului, said, "I think the governor had a lot of specifics in there. Last year the governor talked about his New Day initiatives and his vision, and this year you saw a lot of details of those proposals."
Say, D-St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise, called the speech exciting and inspiring for people of Hawaii. "It also reflected in part my speech from Opening Day, the dreams that we all have for the greater good of our community — from the seniors to the preschoolers to the toddlers," he said. "We have to plant the seeds."
House Minority Leader Gene Ward commended Abercrombie's passionate speech, if not all his ideas. In particular, Ward objects to using bond sales to finance capital improvement projects — equating the move to using a credit card to remodel a home.
Abercrombie's proposals were well-delivered, but Ward, R-Kalama Valley-Hawaii Kai, asked, "Can he deliver? The jury is still out."