Wednesday, March 11, 2009

House budget has deep cuts, layoffs

HONOLULU – State government is going to make do with a whole lot less, under steep budget cuts passed today by the House Finance Committee.

The committee unanimously passed a budget that goes two-thirds of the way toward making up a $1.8 billion shortfall over the biennium that starts July 1. Tax and fee increases are expected to make up the remaining one-third.

The budget situation could become even more dire tomorrow, if the Council on Revenues, as expected, forecasts a 6-percent revenue slump instead of the 3-percent that’s the basis of the current budget plan.

The budget, HB 200, cuts 374 positions, primarily employees in three programs lawmakers see as duplicative – the Disability and Communications Board, the Planning and Development Agency in the Department of Health, and the Career Kokua Program in the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations. Public affairs offices will also be hard hit.

“I will not sugar coat it or dumb down the reality of what we face,” said House Finance Chairman Marcus Oshiro, D-Wahiawa. “Drastic steps mirror a drastic situation.”

Democratic committee members, meanwhile, took advantage of the opportunity to blast Republican Gov. Linda Lingle for unilaterally saying there would not be tax increases or layoffs to deal with the sour economy.

The House budget cuts $235 million from Lingle’s $11.1 billion proposal for fiscal year 2010 and $170 million from her $11.3 billion proposal for 2011.

Lingle had promised communication, Oshiro said, yet he was blindsided by press releasees and public comments the governor made without discussing it with the Legislature first.

Committee members agreed that nothing should be taken off the table during these tough times.

“The fact of the matter, we’re chasing a $1.8 billion shortfall,” said Rep. Sharon Har, D-Royal Kunia, Makakilo, Kapolei.

Rep. Gene Ward, R-Kalama Valley, Queen’s Gate, Hawaii Kai, rushed to the governor’s defense. Communication has to be a two-way street, he said. And the Finance
Committee hasn’t been telling the governor what it’s been up to either.

Ward added that the budget situation looks grim, but it’s not as bad as it was in the 1990s, when the state had to dip deeply into its reserves to keep the state running.

“We’re going a little bit overboard too quickly,” Ward said, adding however, “everything we say today is moot until we see what the Council on Revenues does tomorrow.”