Monday, September 13, 2004

Cuts could make women’s
group seek private funding

Gov. Linda Lingle is planning to eliminate the operating budget for the Commission on the Status of Women next year, forcing the state agency to raise funds privately to continue its work promoting equity for Hawaii women.

Allicyn Tasaka, the commission's executive director, and Kalei Kanuha, one of the seven commissioners, have resigned, citing what they called a lack of support from Lingle.

Tasaka and Kanuha said they believed Tasaka's high-profile backing of then-Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono, Lingle's opponent in the 2002 gubernatorial race, was a factor in Lingle's treatment of the commission. Some commissioners also were prominent Hirono supporters.

"It's very ironic that Hawaii's first woman governor is trying to cripple (the commission) by cutting its budget," Tasaka said.

"I find it very, very hypocritical and shocking that our first woman governor has been so inattentive to women's issues in general and the commission in particular," Kanuha said.

Russell Pang, a Lingle spokesman, denied that politics was a factor in the funding decision, and noted that the governor has demonstrated support for women's issues in many ways.

Saying otherwise "is both unfair and inaccurate," Pang said, adding that a significant portion of the administration's programs focus on the well-being of women, children and families.

He mentioned a number of examples, including initiatives to help pregnant legal immigrants and to add more uninsured women to Medicaid and other programs. In addition, Lingle has appointed many qualified women to high-level Cabinet and leadership positions within her administration, according to Pang.

He also said the plan to phase out the commission's operating budget was developed strictly for fiscal reasons and is in line with the Legislature's intent to make the commission more self-sufficient.

Tasaka and other commission supporters, however, said the Legislature never intended the commission to rely entirely on private funding, noting that lawmakers approved roughly $95,000 in operating money for the current fiscal year and the same amount for the coming year, which starts July 1.

Because of the state's tight fiscal situation, Lingle has proposed slicing the current budget by $45,000 and eliminating the $95,000 for next fiscal year, according to the administration. She ordered cuts at other state agencies as well.

On Thursday, however, the Council on Revenues forecast an improving fiscal picture for the state, prompting calls to restore some planned cuts to agency budgets.

The commission, which is part of the executive branch, has money in a trust fund, but those funds are earmarked for programs related to women's health and cannot be used for the agency's general operations.

Leslie Wilkins, former commission chairwoman, said she disagrees with Lingle's plan to cut the operating budget.

"I'm deeply saddened that funding for the commission is not core to government and a priority for the state," Wilkins said.

The funding decision and other administration actions have raised questions about Lingle's interest in the agency.

In her nearly two years in office, Lingle has yet to meet with the commission, and unlike with previous governors, she hasn't even had a courtesy visit with commission representatives to learn more about the agency's mission, according to Tasaka.

"At least the other governors showed an interest in what we do," Tasaka said.

Kanuha said she submitted two written requests to meet with Lingle to discuss the commission but never received responses.

Tasaka also noted that Lingle has not involved the commission in planning for a major international women's leadership conference to be hosted by the administration in November. Tasaka said she found out about the conference from someone in the community, not through the administration.

Pang said the administration plans to meet with the commission soon to discuss the upcoming conference. The meeting also will include discussions about the commission's overall mission, he added.

Tasaka said she is hopeful Lingle will rise above politics and become more supportive of the commission, whoever runs it.

Tasaka, who had been executive director since 1998, said her resignation became effective Friday. Kanuha, who has served on the commission for more than four years, resigned over the weekend.

Tasaka starts a new job today as executive director of Hawaii Meals on Wheels, a nonprofit organization that provides hot meals to elderly, disabled and homebound people. She said the opportunity to head this organization also was a factor in her decision to resign.



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