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David Shapiro
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By David Shapiro

Saturday, February 17, 2001

sour public

Democratic legislators are following bumbling committee chairmen into costly misadventures.

In the House, Judiciary Chairman Eric Hamakawa of Hilo is inexplicably making Hawaii's age of sexual consent -- the youngest in the nation at 14 -- a defining issue of the session. And he has positioned Democrats on the wrong side.

In the Senate, Ways and Means Chairman Brian Taniguchi of Manoa is out to dispel any doubts that majority Democrats are in the pocket of public employee unions. Taniguchi is floating a budget plan to give state workers the full pay raises they seek -- apparently without the formality of making them bargain for the money.

Hawaii's young age of sexual consent is an embarrassment and there's broad public support to raise the age to 16 or 18. Even most House Democrats favor the idea.

Arguments against raising the age of consent -- mainly that it would discourage sexually active teens from seeking birth control -- aren't convincing. And what can you say about Gov. Ben Cayetano's worry that in this age of Britney Spears wannabes, it's tough for horny old men to tell who's of age and who's not? One can only hope that Vicky smacked him for that one.

In any case, Hamakawa is one of the few lawmakers who opposes raising the age of consent and won't even commit to holding a hearing. And in the twisted world of political loyalty, Democrats decided it was more important to back a wrong-headed chairman than to serve the public good.

So House Democrats thwarted a Republican attempt to force a floor vote on legislation bottled up in Hamakawa's committee -- and thought they were quite clever in doing so.

But instead of giving each other high fives for outwitting Republicans on procedure, the Democrats should worry about how they got their rear ends handed to them on substance.

They positioned their party as the protector of adult sexual predators over the defenseless children they target. Even if they do the right thing at the end of the session, Republicans will get the credit for pressing the issue.

Democrats in the Senate were smart enough to hold a hearing on the age of consent and begin moving a bill. They didn't want the emotional issue to distract from their primary business -- kissing up to public worker unions.

Taniguchi's initial budget proposal to give the unions everything they want would cause $1 billion in deficits over three years. No problem. The Ways and Means chairman would make it up by raising taxes and cutting services to the public.

Senate President Robert Bunda said it's only "an opening scenario," but you never know with these guys. The Senate Health Committee has already voted to raise the general excise tax.

That Taniguchi even floated the plan badly undermines Cayetano's efforts to negotiate responsible contracts with public employees that provide fair and affordable pay raises in exchange for help in making government more effective.

If the unions think the Legislature will hand them everything they want, why should they bother to negotiate seriously with the governor?

This too-cozy relationship between unions and legislators is exactly the sort of thing that made voters angry enough to vote in so many new Republican legislators last year.

Most voters are not anti-union; they simply want balance in collective bargaining. Legislative pandering to the unions in the middle of negotiations destroys the equilibrium. If it keeps up, look for more housecleaning in the next election.

David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at

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