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StarBulletin.com

It is possible to scale back in tight times


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POSTED: Friday, December 11, 2009

Government officials should always be prudent with taxpayers' money, demanding proof that programs are working as intended rather than blindly funding them year after year.

Of course, that doesn't always happen, and money for nothing is easiest to come by when the economy is soaring and the coffers are full. It's impossible to justify such spending in a downturn, but still difficult for bureaucrats to cut programs that outspoken constituents have come to rely on — whether those programs meet core goals or not.

So it's worth praising the recent actions of Honolulu Police Chief Louis Kealoha and state Human Services Director Lillian Koller, who by demanding effective outcomes for spending and focusing on helping the broadest population with the least available resources, set an example for other public officials to follow.

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The new police chief is vowing to refocus on core services — such as patrol officers and criminal investigations — and to cut back as necessary on prevention, education, intervention and counseling programs.

Among those education programs is D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), intended to help kids resist the peer pressure to use alcohol, drugs and tobacco. The popular program brings police officers into schools, providing students a positive role model in law enforcement and encouragement to stay on the right path. There are sure to be howls of protests from parents and principals who want to save it.

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The only problem: Researchers debunked D.A.R.E. years ago. No less than the U.S. General Accounting Office reported in 2003 that six long-term evaluations found no significant differences in illicit drug use between D.A.R.E. students and those who had not been in the program. Kealoha is correct to reassess its funding.

At the Department of Human Services, Koller stood firm in scaling back day-care subsidies, rightly preserving the most aid for the neediest families in a $66 million annual program primarily intended to provide high-quality preschool for the children of lower-income working families.

Koller explained that 56 percent of the participants were using taxpayers' money to pay relatives to take care of their kids. Only 21 percent of the total subsidies — a maximum of $1,395 per month per child — went to licensed preschools. Children are eligible from birth to age 13.

The program also created a disincentive for parents to advance their careers, as they risked losing the entire subsidy if their earnings rose even $1 past the ceiling.

There is no doubt that Koller's restructuring will have an adverse impact on many families, and a trickle-down effect on the relatives and child-care facilities they are paying. But absent any changes, the program would have been broke by March, so she made a difficult but necessary decision to preserve the largest subsidies for the neediest families.

The heads of every state and county agency face tough choices as budgets shrink. They would do well to emulate Kealoha and Koller and ensure that taxpayers get the most for their money.