Bogged down in binding arbitration
If there was a date that set the parameters of Gov. Linda Lingle's administration, it was the night of July 8, 2003
That was when the Democrats in the state House and Senate overrode Lingle's veto of a bill that restored binding arbitration for collective bargaining.
"This bill has the most devastating effect on the Hawaiian economy of anything we do," Sen. Fred Hemmings (R, Lanikai-Waimanalo), GOP leader, said at the time.
The economy might not have been smashed, but Lingle's ability to take large amounts of state money and put it toward projects and programs she favored was halted that night.
Binding arbitration was a public union-supported law forcing the state to go into arbitration with the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the state's biggest public employee union, instead of bargaining and giving the union the power to strike to win a contract.
When Hawaii's public employees were permitted to unionize and go on strike, it was considered an important milestone for labor. But then the binding arbitration law had labor leaping light-years ahead.
Critics of binding arbitration say that the arbitrator is forced to look at the state's ability to pay, and if it can pay, then it should raise salaries.
Even labor-supporting Democrats such as former Gov. Ben Cayetano had argued that binding arbitration robbed management of the tools of contract negotiations. Cayetano liked to explain that his offers of pay raises had to be matched by employees' offers to do something more for the state.
Under Cayetano's way, teachers had to work more days, public employees would have to change their other benefits for pay raises.
The only significant government reform legislation of the last decade was when Cayetano and Democrats such as Sen. Colleen Hanabusa pushed through a bill to scrap binding arbitration. But public employees unions helped defeat legislators who voted to kill binding arbitration.
What's interesting is that now that Hanabusa's power has grown and she is now Senate president, she has not been able to develop a critical mass to limit the public union's power through binding arbitration.
Hawaii has a two-year surplus estimated at $700 million and growing. Arbitrators are likely to nod in agreement when HGEA says the state has the bucks for big raises.
Firefighters just got 26.5 percent arbitrated pay raises, and HGEA is looking for something similar.
Giving public workers more money is easy for the Legislature to do, but designing a state budget where everyone benefits from the expanding state surplus has proven politically impossible.
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