Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Tuesday, May 19, 1998

Winners and losers
in 1998 Legislature

WHO were the winners and losers in 1998 Legislature? What of the future? I have reached a few conclusions.

bullet The players don't think we are aboard an economic Titanic doomed to sink soon. They think we have time.

bullet Hawaiians messaged loud and clear that they want time to sort out their own ideas on sovereignty before the rest of the community gets into the act. The Legislature concurred.

This includes not dealing now with the state Supreme Court decision on traditional access and gathering rights even though not setting clear guidelines pretty well stops all developer investment in undeveloped lands. It applies, too, to a Circuit Court decision on ceded land rents due the Office of Hawaiian Affairs that could break the state's budget.

bullet But there was a wonderful moment of truth when the House of Representatives voted 26-25 on a roll call, with names printed in both dailies, against protesting the present $800,000-plus annual compensation of trustees of Kamehameha Schools/Bishop Estate. Public wrath brought a 50-1 reversal to accept the Senate position of letting the probate court set reasonable compensation.

bullet Government unions, the new political powerhouse that has replaced the wicked old Big Five, gave ground only grudgingly, but have been smoked into the open as never before. Privatization of short-term projects was OK'd, but long-term ones that would require heavy investment are forestalled by the possibility of cancelation after three years.

School principals remain unionized. The Hawaii Government Employees Association showed its hand by running ads favoring a higher excise tax to meet payroll rather than plunking for greater efficiency.

bullet Legislative budgeters squirmed to grant limited personal income tax reductions, avoid a general excise tax increase and still meet payroll. They abolished many vacant positions, raided funds where money had been squirreled and raised user fees. They left many hard decisions for 1999, after this year's elections.

bullet The University of Hawaii won. "Autonomy" will give it control of its lands, fees and internal budgeting. It still will be overseen by regents appointed by the governor.

bullet Tourism was the No. 2 winner. An assured $55 million annual promotion budget will be overseen by a new commission instead of a state department. Commission appointments are key to how independent of pork barrel politics the new agency may be.

bullet The Senate system of committee co-chairmen worked. It prevailed over the House to stop an excise tax increase. It even prevailed over Senate President Mizuguchi, who had pledged to support one.

bullet The idea of getting 26 of the state's top movers and shakers together to draft an economic recovery package probably was a plus even though their unanimously approved plan was decimated, in part by small-business lobbies. The university and tourism changes plus limited income tax relief might not have happened otherwise.

Best of all, public attention has been focused. The economy now is an issue. So is the role of government unions, who aren't faring well in opinion polls.

A key example of newly recognized people power lies with Hawaiians. On May 15, 1997, they staged a march that brought the whole community into the battle to reform Bishop Estate. Trustees haven't changed yet, but processes have -- and they should lead to change.

THE state's Supreme Court justices took themselves out of the politicized you-scratch-my-back-and-I'll-scratch-yours loop that appointed trustees. The Internal Revenue Service and the state attorney general are investigating trustee actions. Trustee pay goes under court review. The "Broken Trust" essay printed by the Star-Bulletin last August heightened public understanding of the mess.

People DO have a voice. The establishment CAN be licked. These are encouraging messages that raise hope for our future.

A.A. Smyser is the contributing editor
and former editor of the the Star-Bulletin
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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