Gas cap might dog Democrats; Bush endangers GOP candidates
HAWAII'S Republicans should count on local issues, such as the gas cap and tax cuts, to propel them to victory in November, while Democrats can hope that a strong negative link between the Hawaii GOP and the declining popularity of President Bush will be their best shot in the 2006 elections.
The results of the Star-Bulletin's latest Insider's Survey showed similar results from all three groups surveyed -- lobbyists, legislators and neighborhood board chairmen.
Out of 75 insiders surveyed, 32 responded.
Hawaii's controversial gas cap, which sets the maximum wholesale price of gasoline, appears to be the most politically dangerous issue facing incumbents in the fall elections.
"Republicans will link the Democrats to local issues such as the gas cap, which was a terrible decision," said one neighborhood board leader.
A Republican lobbyist warned that voters will have no sympathy for those who support the plan to control gas prices by state law.
"The politicians behind creating and imposing a gas cap and those who support continuing it are in for a rude awakening in the poll booth," predicted one veteran lobbyist.
BUT ANOTHER legislative veteran said the Democrats "should leave the damn gas cap alone because it will work in the long run. If they suspend or repeal it now, they will certainly be blamed in the future when prices start to soar."
One Democratic leader, Rep. Joe Souki of Maui, said the gas cap will particularly hurt Sen. Ron Menor, who has defended the legislation.
Since the poll question went out, Menor has proposed a plan that would suspend the gas cap, establish specific conditions under which caps would be temporarily reinstated and give control for monitoring gas prices to the Public Utilities Commission.
SEN. Will Espero (D, Ewa-Kapolei-Ewa Beach) figures "gas cap legislation had the possibility of being a major issue."
But, Espero said, since Menor backed away from the gasoline cap, "this potentially volatile issue may not be as explosive as earlier forecast."
A Republican lawmaker said that because voters "hate the gas cap," Menor's chances of winning his race for the 2nd congressional district this fall will "cap out."
Finally, Rep. Kirk Caldwell (D, Manoa) said the gasoline cap goes beyond party identification because the gas cap "hurts Hawaii's people."
"It should not be viewed through a political lens, but rather from a public policy perspective," Caldwell said.
A PUBLIC opinion poll taken for the Hawaii Business Roundtable and the Pacific Resource Partnership by OmniTrak Group Inc. released last week also shows that "a large majority of residents feel the gas cap is not working for consumers."
"Not a single demographic segment has a large percentage in agreement that the gas cap is working," the OmniTrak report said.
What to do with the state budget surplus, by either beefing up existing services or cutting taxes, is the other issue identified by insiders as a major one.
One lawmaker predicted "fiscal policy, tax cuts vs. education spending, will define the races."
"For Democrats it is taxes and their stance on taxes. Unless they demonstrate that they have tried to save taxpayers from the crushing debt in ways like the earned income tax credit and provide tax cuts to the middle class -- this may be the issue that breaks them," says former Democratic Rep. Annelle Amaral, who is now a lobbyist for Hawaii Planned Parenthood.
Another lobbyist, however, counseled Democrats to do a better job of just explaining how they need to spend the surplus money on increased services.
"The Dems need to convince the public that their tax money will be spent on services and projects that will make a real difference," the lobbyist said.
STATE and county services have been cut for nearly a decade, so the state must spend more, not cut taxes, one neighborhood board chairman said.
"The Republicans will want to move to return the surplus, and the Democrats will need to talk about how it is not really a surplus, but only paying for what we kept putting off," the community member said.
But veteran Rep. Barbara Marumoto (R, Kalani Valley-Diamond Head) says the "Democrats' soft spot will be their stubborn refusal to give back any of the huge surplus in the way of tax breaks."
"The Republicans will benefit from the desire to return some of the surplus, and the Dems looks like the usual 'tax and spenders,'" Marumoto predicted.
FOR REPUBLICANS the political problem rests not with local issues, but with their ties to an unpopular wartime president.
"The biggest issue for both Democrats and Republicans is dealing with the fallout at the state level of the Bush administration's failure at the national level," one Democratic lobbyist said.
Another Democrat said Bush will hurt the GOP, but he urged Democrats to approach the war issue carefully. Supporting Bush and the Iraq war "will definitely have a negative impact on the candidate," he said.
But candidates will lose votes if "their comments are interpreted as being unpatriotic and not supportive of our troops."
Sam Aiona, state GOP chairman, discounted the effect of Bush in local races.
"We are not voting for president of the United States; regardless of what Bush does, this election is not about the president, it is about who will be governor and who will be in the Legislature," Aiona said.
"The real issue is whether we should have a two-party system and more balance in the Legislature," Aiona said.
writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin. He can be reached at 525-8630 or by e-mail at email@example.com