In his fourth State of the State Address before the Hawaii Legislature, Gov. Neil Abercrombie emphasized the state's restored financial stability, along with his administration's long-term plan to sustain it, as an opportunity to act with confidence on key investments in Hawaii's future. Areas highlighted by the Governor included efforts to expand early childhood education; tax relief and support for seniors; an increase in the minimum wage; and collaborative efforts to address homelessness, climate change, and invasive species.
"I am able to report to you, our state government's financial house now stands on solid ground," Gov. Abercrombie said, extending his appreciation to legislators, public employees, local businesses, and the people of Hawaii for sharing in the tough decisions and sacrifices that made the state's unprecedented financial turnaround possible. "We are now entering a new phase. The administration's package and supplemental budget do not rely on any new taxes or fees. On the contrary, I believe we may be able to reduce taxes in key areas. We also have the resources to deliver services to the people of Hawaii while living within our means."
The Governor reaffirmed his administration's steadfast commitment to early childhood development and education, saying he looks forward to building upon his ongoing initiatives by strengthening relationships with the private and nonprofit sectors. "Our plan is to build and strengthen Hawaii's mixed-delivery system of early learning programs," he said. "Community-based preschools are now and will be a key component."
Gov. Abercrombie also emphasized the necessity to match investments in building this foundation with consideration of ways to promote security and dignity for Hawaii's seniors. To provide practical and immediate benefits, the Governor proposed to:
exempt any presently taxed income from all sources for taxpayers age 65 and older with an adjusted gross income (AGI) of $25,000, $35,000 for seniors who are heads of households, or $45,000 for seniors joint filing (affecting approximately 25,000 Hawaii seniors);
double the current refundable food/excise tax credit for taxpayers 65 years or older whose AGI is less than $50,000 (affecting approximately 110,000 Hawaii seniors); and
increase the Kupuna Care budget by $4.2 million and make it permanent (enabling seniors to remain in and receive care in their homes -- an investment that will prove beneficial as our senior population ages, grows in numbers, and lives longer).
"These proposals address the practical everyday reality of expenses for seniors, provide across-the-board fairness in application, can take effect immediately, and fit comfortably into our long-term financial stabilization plan," he said.
In addition, the Governor announced that his administration will be submitting a bill to increase the minimum wage to at least $8.75 starting in January 2015. Average weekly earnings have increased 16 percent since 2007, while the minimum wage has remained unchanged. Currently, 21 other states plus the District of Columbia have higher minimum wage rates than Hawaii while minimum wage earners in the state are confronted by much higher living costs.
Addressing the "myth" that increases to the minimum wage only benefit entry-level workers, the Governor cited that 85 percent of minimum wage earners are 21 years old or older. He added that the last four times the minimum wage was raised, the number of jobs increased by an average of 2.2 percent over the following 12 months.
To address the ongoing issue of homelessness, the Governor urged legislators to join him in support of the action plan submitted by the Hawaii Interagency Council on Homelessness, a first-of-its-kind body established by Gov. Abercrombie in 2011.
"Mayors and county councils across the state are united in coming to grips with this issue," he said. "On Oahu, where the need is greatest, we could not have a better partner than Mayor Kirk Caldwell and the City Council led by Council Chair Ernie Martin. "We must now deliver on the Council's plan; for example, by giving support to the "Housing First' program, which houses and cares for the chronically homeless and those who suffer from a disability."
Recognizing Hawaii's vulnerability to the impacts of climate change, the Governor, recently appointed to President Obama's Task Force on Climate Preparedness and Resilience, announced that he will be holding Resilient Hawaii Forums this year to engage stakeholders and create a climate change roadmap for Hawaii. The forums will build upon the significant progress already achieved by the state Office of Planning in updating Hawaii's Ocean Resources Management Plan, and call on the state's new sustainability coordinator to work across department lines for planning.
The Governor also emphasized the need to protect Hawaii's environment from invasive species, endorsing legislative initiatives proposing up to $5 million to meet operating costs of invasive species programs. In addition, his administrative package this session will include additional support for watershed protection, farming infrastructure and invasive species management.
The Governor concluded his address by remembering the late Loretta Fuddy, a lifelong supporter and advocate of public health measures. Recalling her affection and advocacy for families and children, the Governor announced his intent to request additional funding for the Department of Health's Early Intervention Services. The program provides critical services to children with developmental delays from birth to three years of age, as well as positive intervention in the crucial areas of cognitive and physical function, social and emotional well-being and adaptive skills.
"Loretta Fuddy was their champion," the Governor said. "I am asking for specific attention to make funding for Early Intervention Services a priority. This will serve as a fitting tribute and appropriate legacy to honor Loretta. There will be lasting benefits for the affected families and children -- the children she loved and cared for passionately to her last day."
The entire text of the State of the State Address is posted on the Governor's website, http://governor.hawaii.gov. Link directly to the address here: http://governor.hawaii.gov/blog/2014-state-of-the-state-address/