Monday, February 8, 1999

Gas price regulation
would be a mistake

Gasoline-Paying the Price FRUSTRATION stemming from the disparity between Hawaii's high gasoline prices and much lower average prices on the mainland has led to the introduction of bills to regulate prices here. But regulation isn't appropriate, as many legislators seem to recognize. The House Energy and Environmental Protection Committee deferred two bills that would establish government-set benchmark limits for wholesale gasoline prices. The action makes it unlikely that the measures will pass in this session but they can be carried over to next year.

Most testimony before the committee made the point that competition, not government intervention, is the most efficient pricing mechanism. In fact, competition is what the state is trying to promote with the antitrust lawsuit filed by Attorney General Margery Bronster against the oil companies. The suit alleges that the companies conspired to keep prices high.

Establishment of a benchmarking system for gas prices would be fraught with difficulties and probably open the way to more costly litigation. It could also reinforce the state's anti-business reputation.

Chevron dealer Frank Young supported regulation, arguing that "bold measures have to be taken if we are going to revitalize our economy and give small businesses a break."

Fortunately, neither the state Attorney General's Office, the Department of Business, Economic Development & Tourism nor the Public Utilities Commission endorsed the benchmarking idea. Chairwoman Hermina Morita observed, "The general feeling was regulation is not the answer."

Winning the state's antitrust case against the oil companies probably won't be easy. Previous antitrust investigations have failed to turn up evidence of conspiracy to fix prices. The state hopes to be successful this time, but a final resolution may be years away. Still, the lawsuit is the best tactic available.


Election system

COLLEEN Hanabusa, the newly elected senator from Waianae, says the selection process for the election system for 2000 should be done in the open with public feedback and well in advance of the elections. This would be contrary to the method that resulted in the current questioning of the 1998 election returns. Hanabusa says the decision-making process and the lack of competitive bidding in the selection of the election-machine vendor show the need for oversight of the state election officer.

That is true, but it doesn't deal with the circumstances facing Dwayne Yoshina, the chief election officer, last year. Yoshina explained that in late February or early March of 1998 he realized that budget and personnel cuts would make it difficult, if not impossible, to conduct the elections with the old card-punch system.

In previous elections, he said, it took six to eight state workers four to six months to prepare for the elections. Last year he got two workers. About the same time, Elections Systems & Software offered him a more advanced system that would not require as many people.

Yoshina said there wasn't enough time to go through the formal bidding process, so he decided to go ahead with a nonbid contract with Elections Systems & Software. At the time he began discussions with the company, he says, he was not aware that other companies offered similar systems.

This was certainly not an ideal way to proceed, but Yoshina was faced with an emergency situation caused by the administration's denying him sufficient personnel to conduct the elections the old way. Any investigation by the Legislature should include the dreadful decision by someone in the Cayetano administration to make this drastic cutback in the elections staff.

The card-punch system dated back virtually to the onset of the computer age and was overdue for replacement. Obviously the selection of a new system should have been made in a more orderly fashion. But the cutback forced Yoshina to move fast -- too fast. The state should do better next time, and there is no reason why it can't.

1998 General Election Results

TV trash blocker

THE federal Telecommunications Act of 1996 required broadcasters to develop an electronically coded television ratings system allowing parents to block unwanted programs with a remote control linked to the v-chip. But parents, even those who say they are fed up with trash programs on TV and want to shield their children from sex, violence and profanity, aren't buying the gadgets -- at least not enough of them in the first year of sales.

Part of the problem may be price -- $60 to $100. Sales have been so poor that some stores dropped the product. But supporters say it takes time for consumers to accept new technology and the sales figures should improve with time.

An opinion survey last year found that 65 percent of parents said they would block objectionable programs if they had a v-chip, but weren't likely to buy a v-chip or a television set equipped with one during the next year or two.

Then there are those parents who've decided they don't need a v-chip because "I know where the on-off switch is." Nothing wrong with that, provided that the parents are always or usually on hand to screen TV material. The v-chip works when they're not around, which in many cases is often.

Lois Salisbury of the advocacy group Children Now commented, "This is very early in the learning curve. I certainly don't see this as a measure of parents' concern about TV content or their desire for a ratings system." But if sales don't pick up, you have to wonder.

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