Maui wildfire recovery costs prompt state spending cuts

Gov. Green

2023 January 12 CTY - Photo courtesy of the State of Hawaii. State Representative Scott Saiki.

State budget officials are scraping together a big pile of cash previously budgeted for a wide range of uses to instead pay for mounting Maui wildfire recovery expenses.

Gov. Josh Green recently informed leaders of all state agencies that he is using his emergency power to redirect $173 million in appropriations for about two dozen projects and programs, including long-overdue repairs to a leaky Hawaii Convention Center roof, so that the state can cover near-term costs responding to the biggest disaster in recent Hawaii history.


The move could alter the fate or timing of affected projects and programs, though the governor plans to request that the Legislature next year re-appropriate all the money he has shifted.

“I recognize that these appropriations may be significant to your programs but ask for your utmost understanding and support of these efforts,” Green said in the executive memorandum dated Oct. 30. “As we navigate these uncharted waters, bear in mind that the recovery process will be long and costly.”

Luis Salaveria, director of the state Department of Budget and Finance, said in an interview that the state already faces around $100 million in accrued bills or known obligations related to the Aug. 8 wildfires and that it’s uncertain how much higher such expenses will grow and when they will be due.

“What we’re doing financially right now is making sure that we can meet the obligations for the response and recovery for the wildfire disaster, and to do that we need to be mindful of expenditures,” he said. “These (fire-related expenses) are expenditures that we did not anticipate four months ago.”

Funding is being redirected for 26 projects or programs, some of which are losing only partial funding while others are losing total funding.

The largest redirected appropriation is $64 million to fix the convention center’s leaky roof.

The smallest shift takes $5, 000 from a $50, 000 appropriation for a state Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism strategic marketing and support pilot program called “Kamaaina Connect.”

Other pullbacks include $45 million out of $50 million for the Department of Education to produce teacher housing, $15 million out of $25 million for state park improvements, an entire $3.5 million DOE appropriation for Mililani softball field improvements and a $250, 000 cut from a $2.5 million DBEDT appropriation for culinary arts master classes.

Salaveria said merit wasn’t a consideration for any of the affected projects or programs, and he noted that some may not have been ready to use appropriated funding.

The Hawaii Tourism Authority, which oversees operations of the convention center, has been doing repair design work using previously appropriated funding and expects to begin construction in 2025 after procuring a contract in June 2024.

“We understand the need to reallocate state resources in support of Maui’s recovery, and support Governor Green’s leadership in this regard,” Daniel Naho‘opi‘i, HTA interim president and CEO, said in a statement. “Our initial conversations with the Legislature have been positive, and we will be formally requesting bond funding for this important project in the upcoming Legislative session.”

Obtaining money from the Legislature to fix the convention center roof has previously been quite an ordeal.

Officials at the center unsuccessfully sought $27 million from lawmakers in 2017 to fix the roof based on an architecture engineering firm’s analysis, and a follow-up effort in 2021 also was rejected as the estimated cost for the repairs had ballooned to $64 million.

In 2022 the Legislature appropriated $15 million for short-term roof improvements while operators of the center were spending about $200, 000 on average to repair damage inside the building after each rainstorm.

Then earlier this year, lawmakers approved $64 million for the roof repair job.

In 2024, competition for funding projects and programs could be extraordinarily high, depending on factors that include how the state economy is looking, how much tax revenue is coming in and how high the state’s estimated Maui fire recovery costs get.

House Speaker Scott Saiki (D, Ala Moana-Kakaako-Downtown) said it’s impossible to predict which defunded projects and programs may get re-funded by the Legislature in 2024, but he said the convention center roof repair had become a health and safety issue and that such issues tend to be prioritized.

Saiki also noted that in addition to Maui wildfire response costs, a lot of consideration to appropriate tax revenue for mitigating wildfire risk statewide is expected during the session.

The state has an estimated $1.3 billion in its emergency budget reserve fund, also known as the “rainy day” fund, after lawmakers and Green agreed to deposit $500 million into the account this fiscal year ending June 30.

Tapping this account, which requires legislative approval, could be something lawmakers consider as part of budget funding in 2024.

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