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Capitol View

By Richard Borreca

Wednesday, January 24, 2001

Showdown over
union contracts

BE it a ritual dance or reality, Gov. Ben Cayetano and the public employee unions are moving to a spring showdown.

If you don't work for the government or have kids in school in Hawaii, you might be tempted to ask, "Who cares?"

The police can't strike and the governor already settled with the United Public Workers, so garbage will be picked up and prison guards will be keeping the bad guys locked up.

But because the possible wage settlement with the 40,000 public workers is such a big part of the state budget, it gets in line first.

The Legislature has slightly more money to pass around this year and Cayetano is not shy about spending it.

The state budget is already estimated at nearly 10 percent more than last year, and is expected to rise even more. Whenever all the public workers and the state agree on pay raises, the budget will go up.

Lost in the battle are the tiny checks and grants doled out to nonprofits and charities. The community organizations hoping to make a program last another year with a $75,000 state appropriation can only wait until the big boys stop fighting before they get a chance at the state budget.

In fact, the entire state budget is pretty much a work of fiction until the employees pay raises are locked up.

The budget is more than public workers, Cayetano argued last night on KHET.

Collective bargaining, he said, can't consume everything at the Legislature.

"We have a responsibility to the people who are the core constituents of our services, the poor and the disabled," he said. "The social programs we talked about are very important to me."

Cayetano repeatedly recalls how he had to deny requests for services to the poor in order to balance the budget in 1995 and 1996. But this year there will be no accounting until the public employees settle.

CONFUSING the matter is the case of the Hawaii Government Employees Association. HGEA thought it settled last year when an arbitrator awarded the state's white-collar union raises of about 15 percent.

But the governor protested and when he did send the contract to the Legislature, as required by law, the Legislature didn't fund it.

While legislators promise to pay now, Cayetano argues the contract wasn't approved last year, so it doesn't exist.

Even if the Legislature does approve the HGEA raises, Cayetano says he will veto the bill. The result is that HGEA members might want to think about scaling back their demands in order to get some money this year.

And that will require Cayetano to provide a face-saving mechanism for the HGEA to retreat from its already-won raises.

Cayetano's style, however, is as much about face-saving as in your face.

Even in a candid assessment of his own accomplishments, the governor essentially said he will be his own judge and that's good enough.

"I'm not sure I want people to remember me for anything. people may not believe that, but that is the way I feel," Cayetano said.

First, Cayetano wisely recognizes that "politics doesn't have any sentiment." You win or lose and then move on to the next page.

Like Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry movies, Cayetano is more comfortable saying "Make my day" than "I feel your pain."

But, with the Legislature looking at a potential logjam over collective bargaining and the HGEA settlements, perhaps Cayetano needs to expand his role.

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

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