Capitol View

By Richard Borreca

Wednesday, January 21, 1998

Economy isn't only issue for lawmakers

PREDICTION: Before this year's legislative session ends, you'll hear a speaker say, "It's the economy, stupid!" But the voters would have to be really stupid to think it is only the economy.

Rarely are legislators given such an opportunity to change the course of government. This is a session to lead, to define the issues, to challenge and to accomplish. Leadership, competence and empathy will be needed.

Gov. Ben Cayetano is a powerful Democratic governor in a solidly Democratic state with an overwhelming Democratic majority behind him. That same Democratic majority has not faced a legislative challenge in two decades.

What they can agree on will pass into law.

Already a new group has formed to explain that it is more than the economy. The Welfare and Employment Rights Coalition represents more than 100 human-services provider organizations, according to the Rev. Frank Chong, one of the group's organizers.

Right now he is thinking that the poor are at ground zero, with the Legislature about to drop the biggest budget-cutting bomb of the decade. "Our folks are always the most vulnerable, especially when education and the university have been sacred cows," Chong said.

He's hoping that the least the Legislature can do is not take away anything from the poor. Chong figures that a bigger tax break for the poor would do more to help the economy than the present plans of the Governor's Economic Revitalization Task Force.

The list of problems that will confront the 1998 Legislature doesn't stop with taxes. At least two major issues were left for lawmakers to deal with, thanks to the state Supreme Court.

First, because of the court's ruling, there is little chance for real change from public to private workers until the Legislature revisits and changes the law against privatization.

Second, a ruling that the stress caused by dismissing an employee can be treated as a workers' compensation case puts employers at risk. Business and insurance companies are expecting some action on that issue.

The same-sex marriage issue is not likely to go away, either. There will be calls to revisit it and also address which unmarried partners will get reciprocal benefits. Again, businesses are looking for action and leadership from the state to complete the work in the area of marriage benefits.

Legislators are also expected to handle questions regarding caps on Bishop Estate trustee salaries. Governor Cayetano has said he wants to limit the pay of the trustees, and others are looking for 1998 to be a year of major reform for the estate.

Finally, state Rep. Ed Case has chosen this year as the time to start serious work on bringing together the various property rights claims, ceded lands payments and other native Hawaiian issues. The ferocity with which Hawaiian organizations have chastised Case is testimony to the sensitivity of the issue and the challenges it will give lawmakers.

NORMALLY all you need to do to send the Legislature into paralysis is raise the issue of an excise tax increase. But add serious problems ranging from poverty, traffic, education and economic viability and you have a nervous 76 individuals down at the state Capitol.

This year, though, the drum beat of issues are all the more amplified by timing: The race for governor starts the second that the gavel falls on the Legislature's closing day. Then the question is who will be left standing after the November elections.

Richard Borreca reports on Hawaii's politics every Wednesday.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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