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Changing Hawaii

By Diane Yukihiro Chang

Friday, July 14, 2000

‘Problem’ of having
a budget surplus

AN amusing aspect of politics is the need to say one thing to get into office and then, once elected, say quite the opposite. Or, as it's known in Hawaii, the Ben Cayetano Syndrome.

The governor, true Democrat that he is, has always been blatant about seeking union support.

In both the 1994 and 1998 gubernatorial elections, he was especially attentive to kingmakers like the Hawaii Government Employees Association -- a formidable sign-waving, neighborhood-canvassing, vote-stirring bunch. The HGEA helped vault Cayetano into power and he knew it.

During his first term, Cayetano was too busy dealing with a hefty budget deficit to appease HGEA members. So when they started squawking about overdue raises, Cayetano humored them by saying -- while he'd like to, he'd really like to -- there just wasn't enough moolah in state coffers to accommodate everybody.

During the highly contested 1998 campaign, Cayetano again turned to the HGEA. He warned that a Republican administration would slash government jobs and push privatization.

Scared as heck, public workers rode to the rescue once more -- resulting in the incumbent eking out a win.

Comfortably re-ensconced in office, Cayetano did what he'd always wanted to do: establish his legacy as an architect of change.

He began leading the charge for much-needed civil service reform because, as we all know, government must get smaller and more efficient, especially when money is tight.

Unfortunately, Cayetano underestimated both the influence of the unions and an arbitration panel's award of some very nice raises to HGEA members.

Still, there was always the safety net that a ceaseless recession might forestall the actual doling out of these pay hikes, at least in Cayetano's mind.

Everything changed this week. Thanks to a recovering economy, state officials are now predicting a budget surplus estimated at $250 million or about 60 percent more than was forecast in January.

Right on cue, HGEA chief Russell Okata piped up that any extra money should be used for the already arbitrated raises for his members. He calculated the amount needed at $111 million for the four-year contract.

All eyes now turn to Governor Cayetano. For so long, he's been saying that -- if only the millions were available -- he'd be thrilled to come up well-deserved pay raises for hard-working government workers.

And now the windfall is here. Well?

According to Cayetano and his state budget director, there still isn't enough for sweeping pay raises for public employees, because if all state workers were given the same raise as in the HGEA settlement (who said this was necessary?), Hawaii would soon be back in the red.

Furthermore, Cayetano wants to use the extra money to reinstitute funding for current programs, and for other future and pending obligations like the Felix consent decree, his budget director said.

Asked for his reaction to the administration's plans, the usually talkative Okata refused comment like a man stricken with a debilitating malady. His symptoms: perhaps anger, frustration and pure disgust with a former friend and ally he helped elect and re-elect to the top office in the land.

The Ben Cayetano Syndrome strikes again.

Diane Yukihiro Chang's column runs Monday and Friday.
She can be reached by phone at 525-8607, via e-mail at, or by fax at 523-7863.

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