Thursday, January 21, 1999

A variety of solutions
at opening of session

OPENING day at the state Legislature found the weak economy again the main concern -- but no consensus on the solution. The 1998 Legislature's heavy focus on the recommendations of the governor's Economic Revitalization Task Force may have made this session anticlimactic.

For Senate President Norman Mizuguchi, the key recommendation was $50 million in unspecified tax incentives for small business. For House Speaker Calvin Say, it was dollar-for-dollar tax credits for hotel room renovation projects of $1 million or more.

Mizuguchi pushed for establishing the state as the "call-center" hub for the Asia-Pacific region and a ban on strikes by state and county employees. Say supported development of a biotechnology research park in Kakaako under a public-private partnership.

Speaking for the Republican minority, Sen. Whitney Anderson proposed allowing small businesses to obtain long-term, low-cost leases on surplus state lands and unused agricultural tracts. Rep. Barbara Marumoto sought elimination of the general excise tax on food, medical care and residential rent, plus privatization of government services.

Governor Cayetano, meanwhile, wants to further reduce the income tax rate beyond the cut enacted last year -- an idea that Speaker Say has received with skepticism. The governor says he will not try again to get the Legislature to approve a hike in the excise tax, a proposal that failed last year after provoking the biggest battle of the session.

What will emerge from this melange of ideas is anybody's guess at this point. There is no measure that will magically pull Hawaii out of the economic doldrums, but elimination of the pyramiding of the excise tax would certainly help.


Three-strikes laws

REJECTING the appeal of a man sentenced to 25 years in prison after stealing a bottle of vitamins from a supermarket, the U.S. Supreme Court has left intact California's three-strikes law. While essentially deferring action on the issue, the high court unfortunately gave a strong indication that it will not overturn such intemperate throw-away-the-key laws.

Washington state was the first to adopt a "three strikes and you're out" sentencing law in 1993, and has used it to imprison 120 people for life without chance of parole. About half the states have adopted similar laws since then.

California has used its 1994 law to imprison more than 40,000 people for second and third strikes -- a quarter of the state's prison population.

Michael Riggs is among 4,400 Californians who were sentenced to 25 years to life in prison for commission of at least three crimes; it was Riggs' ninth crime, preceded by four nonviolent crimes and four robberies. His theft of the vitamins was described by one state court as "a petty theft motivated by homelessness and hunger." California may be the only state that can impose such a severe sentence for conviction on a misdemeanor.

Only Justice Stephen G. Breyer voted to hear Riggs' self-written appeal. Three other justices preferred to await decisions by other courts on three-strikes laws before addressing the "obviously substantial" issues involved. Four of the nine justices are needed to grant full review of cases, but the fact that five justices voted for outright rejection of Riggs' appeal makes the likelihood of the court overturning such laws remote.

Hawaii should avoid jumping on this bandwagon. Although the tough sentencing laws produce some reduction in crime, a 1996 study showed that they also resulted in severe overcrowding of prisons -- a major problem in Hawaii even without such laws -- and court congestion caused by defendants refusing to plea bargain. Hawaii has adequate provisions for enhanced sentences for repeat offenders. More mandatory sentences are unwarranted.


Refuse collection

A city-county proposal to turn refuse collection over to a private operator could force a showdown in the dispute with the United Public Workers. The union has balked at converting 16 garbage routes to automated pickup, claiming the city reneged last year on an agreement to raise the refuse workers' pay.

Mayor Harris insists that the city never accepted the raise in joint negotiations with the state and the other counties. The UPW's position was upheld by the Hawaii Labor Relations Board but Harris disputes the board's ruling and has taken the issue to court.

Ken Sprague, city director of Environmental Services, has written to UPW director Gary Rodrigues, notifying him that the city will move ahead with the automation expansion this year. The city planned to automate eight routes last year and another eight routes this year. Sprague said if the UPW refuses to accept automation the city will begin soliciting proposals for private operation.

The UPW would undoubtedly react adversely to such action and might try to block it. That could spell trouble, possibly a work stoppage.

The problem is a serious one, especially in view of the city's fiscal problems. It is costing the city an additional $2 million this year to use the traditional three-person crews on eight of the 16 routes rather than the one-person automated truck, most of it for overtime pay. This is money the city can ill afford to spend needlessly.

It goes without saying that the city can't afford a pay raise for the refuse workers either. There may have been a misunderstanding about the city's position on the raise, but it would be grotesque if the union succeeded in its claim that its members must be given the raise.

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