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David Shapiro
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By David Shapiro

Saturday, November 25, 2000

Did Dems really
get the message?

AN axiom of Hawaii politics is that no matter who wins the election, the public employee unions will end up running the Legislature.

That held true as the House and Senate organized for the 2001 session. Union-backed lawmakers grabbed every key post -- even more so than in the last Legislature.

Voters who sent a message of change are frustrated. If anything was clear from the election, it was that citizens are tired of the powerful influence of public employee unions in state government .

Republicans picked up seven House seats as Democrats were punished for their close ties to the public workers. One Democrat who won easily was Rep. Ed Case, a leading civil service reformer who was targeted for defeat by the Hawaii Government Employees Association and United Public Workers.

In the Senate, President Norman Mizuguchi retired rather than face certain defeat because of his servile ties to union bosses. Sen. Brian Kanno, another trusty minion for labor, survived a race in his union district by fewer than 100 votes.

So how did lawmakers respond to an election with such a clear message?

Union watchdogs Dwight Takamine and Eric Hamakawa from the Big Island remained chairmen of the House Finance and Judiciary committees. A disgusted Case dropped out as House majority leader and was replaced by union-friendly Marcus Oshiro.

In the Senate, the new president Robert Bunda put pay raises for public employees at the top of his agenda. HGEA favorite Brian Taniguchi became chairman of Ways and Means, which oversees pay and benefits for government workers.

The nearly defeated Kanno gained even more power as he became Judiciary chairman, responsible for handling Gov. Ben Cayetano's union-opposed plan to privatize state prisons. Labor lawyer Colleen Hanabusa was elected vice president of the Senate.

I have nothing against unions. I've negotiated from both sides of the bargaining table and respect the collective bargaining process.

But I've worked in the private sector where there's a balance of power between labor and management. The result is almost always an equitable settlement that reflects the economic forces of the time.

THERE'S no such balance with public employee unions. Their power in the Legislature gives them undue control of both sides of the bargaining table, as well as great influence on rule-making and arbitration methods.

The result is a government that is run more for the benefit of public employees than for the public. That's just wrong. How else does public-worker pay reach the top of the legislative agenda? It's not exactly the state's most pressing problem in terms of public impact.

The only encouraging portent is that both Cayetano and Republican chairwoman Linda Lingle see positive signs in the changes at the Legislature.

Cayetano says Democrats understand the lessons in the election results. He believes that he can work with the new Senate leadership on civil service reform -- the real pressing issue confronting our state. If government workers would agree to changes in civil service rules that make government inefficient and unduly expensive, it would be easier to support -- and afford -- the pay raises they want.

Lingle says Democratic lawmakers got the message that unless they produce change, more of them will be voted out in 2002. She predicted that this Legislature will pass civil service reform and allow privately run state prisons.

I hope they're right, but many fear they'll be crooning a more sober melody come May.

David Shapiro is managing editor of the Star-Bulletin.
He can be reached by e-mail at

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