CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
State budget director Georgina Kawamura poses on the balcony of her office in the Hemmeter Building overlooking the state Capitol. Below, she sifts through a formidable stack of budgetary paperwork.
Why is thisShrinking state revenues, already buffeted by the lingering effects of 9/11, will no doubt be further exacerbated by the nation's entry into war.
Budget director GeorginaPersonal notes
Kawamura tackles the state's
money crisis with determination
By Cynthia Oi
Governor Lingle, who entered office facing what by some estimates was a $250 million shortfall, has had to initiate a series of budget reductions to balance the budget as predictions for revenue growth have dropped from 6.1 percent in January to 4.3 percent earlier this month.
BY CRAIG T. KOJIMA / CKOJIMA@STARBULLETIN.COM
Whether losses are due to tax credits or a decrease in tourism -- the engine that drives Hawaii's economy -- the state has been forced to trim spending.
At the financial forefront has been budget director Georgina Kawamura, whose unenviable task has been to order cuts that have drawn hue and cry from department heads and the public.
"It's not something you go home at night feeling good about," Kawamura says. "But we have to say no to a lot of people because (state government) is not financially sound at this time."
"I'm not a monster. I'm not an insensitive person ... but my basic responsibility in this position is to protect the financial condition of this state and to look after the state's ability to pay for all of the programs we have," she says.
In the movie "Dave," a lookalike who masquerades as the president calls together the Cabinet and goes over each department's expenses line by line until he gleans enough money for an unbudgeted child-care program he favors.
"I love that part," says Georgina Kawamura, the state's director of budget and finance. "But it's not that easy."
Easy or not, Kawamura -- at the direction of her boss, Governor Lingle -- is similarly hunting money, but not for fresh initiatives. The new administration is culling from state government's myriad spending programs any extra dollars it can find just to keep in the black.
To Kawamura, the budget is a policy document with numbers attached, a blueprint for Lingle's objectives. The problem, of course, is money; more specifically, the lack thereof. Without an increase in revenues, Lingle will not be able to launch new programs and with little likelihood that the state will get an infusion of cash in the near future, Kawamura's focus at the moment is to supervise a collection of cuts so the state can pay its bills.
Kawamura does not cringe from the formidable task, but welcomes it.
"People think I'm crazy," she says, but ever since 1975 when she got a job as a clerk-typist in the office of then-Maui Mayor Elmer Cravalho, she has been fascinated by government budgets. Hours of keyboarding data went from mind-numbing drudgery to a sparking realization that the words and numerals represented taxpayer dollars and how they were being spent.
"Maybe I am an odd person. I have this characteristic: I want to be sure that our spending plan in government is what we can afford and that people who pay into it have some recognizable return. That's my challenge," Kawamura said.
Just three months on the job, Kawamura's third-floor office in what's known as the Hemmeter Building already has the appearance of a rooted operative. On this day, windows are thrown open to catch the trades because the air-conditioner is on the fritz, and a breeze flutters across the stacks of paper and folders covering desk, credenza and work table. A seating area with sofa, chair and coffee table are as neat as the woman herself. Dressed in a zip-up tweed-ish blouse and crisp black slacks, she sports two Hawaiian bracelets, three rings, including a large diamond number on her left hand, and a utilitarian watch.
The 50-year-old mother arrives as a self-described "fiscal conservative" through years of raising two sons, now 28 and 24, while working full-time and taking night classes at Maui Community College to earn an associate degree in accounting.
For the time being, she's staying with friends until she decides what to do about living quarters on Oahu. Her "real house," she says, is on Maui where her husband, Gareth (nicknamed Gary), a construction inspector for the county, keeps the fires burning for her weekend visits. Both Lanai natives, they've been married since 1973, about the time she dropped out of the University of Hawaii.
"At that point, I was young, a rebel thinking, 'I don't wanna go to college now,'" she says. The couple did not want to stay in Honolulu and thought Maui would be "a good in-between" of the sleepy Lanai and the bustling city. So the Valley Isle became their base and it was there that she eventually hitched her star to Lingle's.
The two became acquainted when Lingle was a County Councilwoman and Kawamura worked in the mayor's office, having been promoted from clerk to office manager and finally budget director. When Lingle was elected mayor, Kawamura applied for the job of deputy director of finance, which in Maui's government structure is a department head position. Instead, the new mayor retained her as budget director. After Lingle set her sights on the state Capitol, Kawamura went to work for Castle & Cooke. Last year she made an unsuccessful run for Maui Council.
Her friends asked her why she was seeking a Council seat. "People kept telling me, 'Why are you running for office when you know if Linda Lingle gets elected, she'll offer you a job?' Well, I don't control that future. It was not a done deal she will become governor." There was also no guarantee that Lingle would find her a place in her realm, Kawamura said, so getting the budget director nod was a pleasant surprise.
Not so pleasant was the state of the government's finances.
During her campaign, Lingle had pledged not to raise taxes, not to raid the Hurricane Relief Fund and not to lay off public employees. Kawamura says these were not just political promises gauged to win an election, but the governor's steadfast goals, and as such, Kawa- mura has made them her own.
Although her focus at present is dealing with cuts to balance the budget, Kawamura hopes that after this initial crisis, she will be able to put her mark on the process she oversees.
The budget, she says repeatedly, is a policy statement, an application of the administration's ideals, foremost of which is to assure that taxpayers are getting the biggest bang for their bucks. If the size of government is reduced in the process, fine, she says.
Her approach is first to break out each program in each department, then to determine if the program is mandated by the state Constitution, by the Legislature, by federal authority -- whichever. The next step is to understand its objective and finally to assess if that objective is being met. "If not, then we have to look at why it isn't and how we can move there." It's an accountability thing.
Kawamura says she, like Lingle, is not a micromanager. She leaves the bean counting to her staff of about 25, many of whom "have the history" of budgeting for the various departments.
"When I took office, I told them I would rely on them for review and recommendations," she said.
With budget cuts, she similarly relies on department heads to pick and choose where trims will come. Again, it's the accountability thing, allowing them to make decisions, but having to answer for them, too. The practice also offers a buffer.
When the administration announced in February that it would reclaim $1.6 million that the Legislature had appropriated for community health centers, it did not realize that what appeared to be money left unspent was merely awaiting bureaucratic processing before being distributed. Without the cash, clinics would be left in a bind. In the end, the money was left untouched. When asked about whether she had made a mistake, Kawamura, who in all fairness had had less than two months under her new belt, deflected an answer, saying it had been up to the health director to decide.
As would any long-time public official, Kawamura has detractors. None would speak for the record, however. One from Maui explained that it would be unwise to alienate the new administration this early in the term. Another said that Kawamura "is lucky to have a job," but quickly added that she is "very, very loyal."
Which is how Kawamura describes herself. She considers loyalty a sterling trait rare in the political world, but one she holds uppermost.
She regards Lingle as a friend. "We are friends, personally and professionally. We have a mutual respect.
"I've learned a lot from her and I admire her basic discipline. It's the model I follow."
As far as models go, Kawamura is importing one from her days on Maui, which is to extend to the public a bigger say in government operations. She intends to organize community "work groups" to discuss an agency's functions and how they may be tailored to serve the people who deal with it.
"Who better to ask than them?" she says.
As an example, if an agency's task is to issue permits, its officials may display the number they have given out as a measure of efficiency. But the real proof for those seeking permits is how quickly an application is processed, she says.
"If the department takes 10 days and the people want it in three to five days, then (the department) isn't meeting objectives," she says.
Kawamura believes that taxpayers turn away from government because officials make it difficult for them to understand the budget process, confusing them until they throw up their hands in frustration. And with her initial look at the state budget document, she shared their pain.
One of her first tasks as budget director was to prepare an emergency appropriations budget for the governor's office since lawmakers last year had reduced predecessor Ben Cayetano's request, leaving Lingle with barely enough to cover expenses up to this month.
"Have you ever seen the budget?" she asks as she hefts the document from her work table. In width and length, it is the standard 8-and-a-half by 11-inch paper; in depth, at least 6 inches; and there are three volumes. Even more formidable, it is printed in type so tiny some may need a magnifying glass to read the numbers.
If that's not intimidating enough, the organization of the document is mind-boggling, she says. For example, if a program or function crosses through several departments, dollar amounts are portioned to those departments.
"I wanted to know what the total budget of the governor's office was. So you'd think you'd be looking for a tab in this that says 'Office of the Governor.' Uh-uh.
"You can't laugh, you can't cry," she says. "But it's not a joke."
The public should be able to read and understand the document, she says. State Capitol lore is that even legislators who have to cast votes on the budget don't know its details.
"That's just not right," and her mission will be to prepare a document for the taxpayer.
"The person on the street should be able to go to a section that says 'Office of the Governor' and be able to know specifically what goes on and what's spent in the governor's office," she says.
"An ideal document is a document that communicates to the public -- actually telling people what we plan to do with their money."
In her personal life, Kawamura isn't extravagant.
"My sister calls me tight. She says it's good I go shopping with her because I always ask her, 'Do you really need that?'
"She says, 'No, but I want it,' and I say, 'Do you really need it?'
"I balance her off."
BACK TO TOP|
The facts of life about the state's new budget director.
Full name: Georgina Kaui Kawamura
Graduate: Kamehameha Schools, Maui Community College
Family: Married since 1973 to Gareth "Gary" Kawamura; two sons, ages 28 and 24
First job: Picking pineapple on Lanai for $1.25 an hour
Recent movie seen: "Antwoine Fisher"
Reads: Romance and mystery novels by Danielle Steel and Mary Higgins Clark
Favorite TV shows: "Murder, She Wrote" or other programs that are entertaining
What she misses: Taking hula lessons. "I haven't had time lately."