By Derrick DePledge
State Rep. Sylvia Luke and Sen. David Ige opened conference committee negotiations on the state budget Tuesday afternoon with a reminder that it was their cautious approach to state spending last year that positioned the state to handle a downgraded revenue forecast.
Luke, the chairwoman of the House Finance Committee, said it was unfortunate that expectations were raised by the state's record $844 million budget surplus at the end of the last fiscal year.
While Gov. Neil Abercrombie has touted the record surplus in his re-election campaign, the governor, Luke and Ige have been consistent in explaining that the surplus did not mean the state would go on a spending spree.
Luke and Ige have pledged not to go back on the state's promises to address unfunded liabilities in the public worker health care and retirement funds and replenish the state's rainy day and hurricane relief funds.
"Let us be clear: without significant adjustments in the budget, we are in deficit spending," said Ige, the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee who is challenging Abercrombie in the Democratic primary. "That means we are spending more than we are collecting in revenues over the next five years. This is a trend that is unsustainable and is the challenge for our conference committee on the budget."
Even before the Council on Revenues downgraded the state's revenue forecast in January and March, the state's two-year budget presumed that the state would spend more than it took in through tax collections, a concern masked by the surplus.
Since this is a supplemental budget year, most of the focus is on the roughly $12 billion in state spending for fiscal year 2015, the second year of the biennium. But Abercrombie had proposed some reductions for this fiscal year -- fiscal year 2014 -- so there has been some discussions on adjustments this year.
On Tuesday, Luke and Ige announced that negotiators had reached agreement on several important items:
*$1.5 million for Housing First, a homeless assistance program.
*$1.2 million for early intervention services in the state Department of Health.
*$1 million and 50 positions for enrollment support at the University of Hawaii-West Oahu.
*$9 million for increased utility costs at the state Department of Education.
House and Senate negotiators will meet again in Room 309 of the state Capitol at 3:30 p.m. on Thursday.
Ige joked that he has been known as "Doctor Doom" over the past few weeks, so he said he hoped the imperial yellow polo shirts that senators and committee staff were wearing as a sign of unity would "brighten up the proceedings this afternoon."
Until House and Senate conferees close the budget, other bills that have financial components are on hold. Lawmakers have until midnight on April 25 to finish work on bills so that final votes can be taken before the session adjourns on May 1.