Session passes with money spent, but little passion
WITH LOTS of money to spend and little drama, the 2006 edition of the state Legislature winds down Thursday with hardly a ripple of recognition from Hawaii's insiders.
The monthly survey of 75 insiders, top lobbyists, Republican and Democratic legislators and chairmen of the neighborhood boards elicited only 20 responses to the question: "What were the best and worst bills of the 2006 Legislature?"
One neighborhood board member frankly admitted, "I have not been keeping up with the bills that are being offered for passage."
And a veteran lobbyist, perhaps reflecting the strain at the end of the 60-day session, said the best legislation is the bill left unwritten.
"The best bills were the ones not introduced, which attempted to fix nothing and consequently left us better off than we would have been had the bills been introduced and wasted our time," he said.
Several insiders pointed to a tax credit bill that would have given a $50 million tax break to private developers to build a racetrack. The bill would have benefited the father-in-law of Sen. Suzanne Chun-Oakland and also involved Rep. Jerry Chang in a land swap. Both lawmakers had publicly noted their potential conflict.
Still, some insiders called the tax break a waste of money.
"This reminds me of the bone-headed $75 million that the Legislature approved a few years ago for the aquarium at Ko Olina," said one insider.
"State government should not be providing handouts to individual developers. If the lawmakers wanted to provide tax relief, they should provide relief that is industry-wide," the insider said.
For some, the worst bill was one that revamps Hawaii's "first in the nation" law legalizing abortion. Since the question was posed, the Legislature has approved the bill and Gov. Linda Lingle has signed it into law.
Still, the measure remains controversial.
"Are we headed for another eco-tourism ... where people come to Hawaii for abortions? This bill also allows for setup of abortion clinics," one insider wrote.
"Also, what were they thinking when they passed out Senate Bill 2166, which allows minors to get abortions without parent consent? Has Hawaii just lost it, or just our legislators?" he asked.
Education popped up as the best use of the state's estimated $600 million surplus, with comments including, "This $160 million to repair our schools is the largest amount funded by the Legislature. It shows their genuine commitment to education. No student should be studying in leaky classrooms."
Another insider looked at the now-dead $50 million racetrack tax credit and said, "The $50 million can be better spent on public education."
Among insiders who responded, there was little interest in either lowering taxes or in blocking the development of Kewalo Basin, two issues that have drawn much public support.
Neal Milner, University of Hawaii political scientist, says with opinions on the best and worst legislation so diverse, it shows that no big issues such as drugs or educational reform or even traffic are rising to drive the legislators one way or another.
"So we have a fairly quiet session with no really big issues on which people clearly divide along best and worst -- and yet this is the year of the governor's race," Milner said.
"Peace and quiet works in favor of the incumbent, just another reminder that the failure to have a serious, ongoing Democratic gubernatorial campaign is both a cause and a consequence of what's happening at the Legislature this session," Milner continued.
Finally, one bill is being watched in the Legislature's closing days as both the "worst and the best" bill.
It is Senate Bill 2190, which would cut more than $100 million from the unemployment insurance fund, which would benefit business, but also increase unemployment benefits.
"Thus, a bill that started out to reduce the tax burden on business will end up increasing the unemployment tax," one insider said.
"This is an example of what I call a Frankenstein bill; i.e., a bill that begins with good intent and ends up a monster."
writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin. He can be reached at 525-8630 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org