Monday, January 18, 1999

Session likely
to see debate, not
actual change

Legislators' priority is to
fix the ailing economy

By Rob Perez


It's the first year of a two-year legislative cycle, new leaders are settling in to committee assignments and everyone is focused on fixing the economy.

So don't expect much to happen on the government reform front.

That's the assessment of lobbyists and some lawmakers as they prepare for the Wednesday opening of the state Legislature.

Even though members of the public have increasingly called for state government to become more efficient, especially with the economy continuing to sputter, significant changes in laws involving collective bargaining and civil service -- the nuts-and-bolts stuff for government operations -- likely won't happen this session, lobbyists and others say.

And don't expect much change, either, in the relatively rich benefits package enjoyed by state and county employees. Leadership, lobbyists say, hasn't changed enough to bring sweeping changes.

"In a down economy, it's almost as hard to cut back benefits as it is to tell someone to take a pay cut," said Tim Lyons, a lobbyist for small businesses.

But that's not to say people won't be debating such reforms.

Administration officials and key Democratic legislators say changes will be proposed, though they wouldn't provide details last week, saying the proposals still were in the works.

Some concepts being considered: linking workers' pay to performance to boost productivity; eliminating overtime from calculations for retirement pensions; giving counties autonomy to negotiate their own union contracts.

But because reforms -- especially controversial ones -- typically take several years to be debated and embraced by a majority of lawmakers, many see this first session of the biennium as a time to lay the foundation for substantive action next year.

That's particularly so because the House and Senate labor committees, the panels that will hear many of the proposals, have new leaders.

Rep. Terry Yoshinaga, an attorney with expertise in employment law, and freshman Sen. Bob Nakata, a minister with a social services background, got the labor assignments as part of lineup reorganizations in both chambers.

The two lawmakers acknowledge they will need time to determine what the problems are and what the best solutions might be.

Nakata, however, said he is concerned that legislators not get bogged down over such issues as civil service reform at the expense of their top priority: fostering economic and work-force development.

If lawmakers don't come up with such economic initiatives, he said, "the Legislature will not have done its job."

But some see government restructuring as precisely an economic issue. They say a more efficient government means that more tax dollars can be returned to the private sector via tax cuts, credits or other programs to stimulate economic development.

"If it gives us a way to reduce the cost of government, that will allow us to bring about more tax reform," said Micah Kane, government liaison for the Building Industry Association.

Rep. Ed Case, the new House majority leader and a strong proponent of government reform, said he senses a greater recognition among legislators that the system needs fixing. He also senses a greater willingness among them to challenge the status quo.

"People used to deny there was a problem," Case said. "I don't think this is a question now of avoiding the issues."

Even some pro-reform lobbyists say they are heartened by the leadership changes and believe proposals will get fair hearings.

They say Nakata, despite being somewhat of an unknown when it comes to dealing with labor issues, will be a welcome change from his predecessor, Sen. Brian Kanno, considered a major ally of labor. Under Kanno, they said, the Senate labor committee became a graveyard for bills that unions opposed.

Despite such shifts, few lobbyists expect labor to lose much ground, if any, at the Legislature. Because the overall makeup of the leadership teams has become slightly more liberal, they say, major reform measures likely won't pass if public-sector unions voice strong opposition.

"If any changes occur, I would see these changes as being ones that would make the system fairer" to workers, said John Radcliffe, a lobbyist for the University of Hawaii faculty union.

One indication of the unions' staying power despite new committee lineups:

During candidate-endorsement interviews last year, Nakata told the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the largest public-worker union, that the state should consider paring retirement benefits -- a major escalating expense -- for future retirees. Though he stressed that benefits for current retirees should not be touched, the union has been a strong advocate for protecting all such benefits. Nakata was endorsed by HGEA nonetheless.

But after he was named head of the labor committee, which historically has handled bills dealing with the state's retirement and health funds, responsibility for those two areas was transferred to the consumer protection committee, which Kanno now co-chairs.

Nakata said his position may have prompted the union to seek the change.

Getting the unions to agree to any reforms may be difficult unless legislators quickly fund the negotiated public-employee pay raises that were not funded during last year's Legislature, lobbyists say.

Some unions are starting to question why they gave up the right to strike if negotiated items can go unfunded like that, Radcliffe said.

Former Sen. Mike McCartney, Gov. Ben Cayetano's new human resources director, said the administration's legislative package, to be unveiled this month, will include measures designed to curb the cost of providing benefits and to reform government. He wouldn't provide specifics, saying the package is still being formed.

But while everyone agrees the system needs fixing, there's little agreement on what the actual problems are, McCartney said.

For that reason, Yoshinaga added, this session should focus on defining the problems, then people can start talking about possible solutions.

"I'm hopeful we can find compromises that have not been possible in the past," she said.

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