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Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Tuesday, February 8, 2000

Reining in public
worker benefits

IN olden days it was standard practice for the Legislature to make biennial or even yearly add-ons to government employee benefits. It was simply good politics in what, in Governor Caye-tano's words, has been "a labor state."

We have some of the richest fringe benefits in America as a result, but also some of the worst restrictions on good management. These last, plus runaway health costs, have moved Cayetano to submit 21 fix-it proposals this year.

After his State of the State speech he invited Star-Bulletin editors to come talk about it. One of us mentioned that he might have trouble prevailing since he is a lame duck who can't seek a third term.

"I may be a lame duck, but I'm not a dead duck," he fired back. It's possible, he said, that some of the people who cross him will become dead ducks. He said he won't oppose specific individuals in the fall elections but will make it clear who voted how on his proposals.

The biggest single add-on to employee rights came in 1970 via one of the hasty 11th-hour deals our bicameral Legislature is infamous for.

A far-reaching bill on government employee collective bargaining was pulled together and passed just days before adjournment. Most interested parties had been told it was so complicated it would be put off to 1971.

But disagreeing government unions leaders found common ground and some sympathetic key legislators. They decided to ram their package through before critics could rally.

There were no public hearings on the final product. It lumped even supervisors and principals into the bargaining units, 13 in all. It gave state negotiators the key vote on contract approvals and pretty well nixed any likelihood of negotiating county-by-county.

Thirty years later we remain its victims. Supervisors and principals don't belong in unions. Counties deserve to be allowed to set different rules and pay. The law crimped both good government management and home rule.

We had a major teachers strike in 1973 and a very rough go with a United Public Workers strike in 1979, plus some smaller set-tos.

We later turned to compulsory arbitration to avoid such strikes. Some arbitrators gave away the store, however. Governor Cayetano wants to restore strike rights, except for police and firefighters. He wants greater county autonomy. He wants more privatization. He wants to cut some benefits for future but not present workers.

I sometimes ask how Republican Linda Lingle might be governing today if she had won that 1998 squeaker. The same problems would be there, along with the same Democratic-dominated Legislature.

Cayetano is quite gutsy in trying to turn the tide. I don't think Lingle could be any more so. She might be trying to do many of the same things.

She might be more willing to go over the heads of the legislators to make her case with the voters directly. She can boil complex issues to their essence. Unlike Cayetano, she could remind voters that more Republicans in the Legislature would be a big help.

Now her opportunities are as Republican state chairwoman. She needs to establish a clearer image of what her party stands for, win attractive recruits and bind GOP members to a common purpose.

By such means the Democrats turned the tables on Big Business starting in 1954. We may be learning now that Big Government-Labor needs a table-turning, too.We may -- or may not -- be on the verge of returning to a stronger two-party system.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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