Monday, April 2, 2001

Open state budget
details to public,
legislator urges

Rep. Djou challenges
Democratic leaders
to end the secrecy

By Richard Borreca

IT WEIGHS 8 POUNDS, spans three volumes and seemingly answers all questions about the state's $7 billion budget, but insiders know the official budget does not tell the real story.

Even the inch-thick budget bills passed by the House and Senate do not break down the budget in detail.

The answers are found in the semi-secret, closely guarded budget worksheets prepared independently by the staff and the ranking Democrats on the House and Senate money committees.

Now freshman Rep. Charles Djou (R-Kaneohe) is challenging the system of secrecy.

He wants the budget worksheets open and available to the public.

When Djou, a member of the House Finance Committee, asked to look at the committee's worksheets, the request was treated as if he would be handling classified documents.

He was told he could only look at them in the committee room, with a Finance Committee staff member present. He could not make notes or copy it, and only he could read, not his aide.

"This is a question of what is more important, openness and letting the people see what is going on, or playing games," Djou said.

Republican Chairwoman Linda Lingle charged that the Democrats have a "closed-door policy."

"As elected officials they have a responsibility to open the budget discussions and worksheets to the Republican staff and general public," Lingle said in a written statement.

Djou has asked the attorney general for an opinion of the legality of restricting access to the budget worksheets, but he said he is not expecting much help from the state.

Ironically, the first attempt to open the budget books was in 1983, when Gov. Ben Cayetano was a senator. He filed suit against the Senate when he was denied the worksheets.

"No one knows what really goes into the budget," Cayetano said back then.

The situation is just as mysterious today.

Sen. Les Ihara (D, Kaimuki), former Senate Democratic leader, says, "Without the budget worksheets, you don't know what you are voting on."

Sen. Carol Fukunaga (D, Makiki), the former Ways and Means chairwoman, explained that the budget the public and state departments see only includes broad categories.

A budget category might include all of lower education, but a program such as computers in the classroom could be changed and replaced with another program, and if the dollar amount was the same, the total would not change.

House and Senate Democratic leaders are rejecting Djou's request to make the budget details public, saying that the information has to be kept secret so each group can prepare a budget plan for the conference committee, which finally works out the compromise budget.

"Why should I be showing my hand?" said House Speaker Calvin Say.

Senate President Robert Bunda noted the worksheets are specifically exempted from the state sunshine law, which requires that almost all public documents be available for inspection and copying.

If the Legislature were to turn over all the information, Bunda added, "What would be the need for a Legislature?" He said the people elect the Legislature to make the decisions about the budget.

Djou, a private attorney, responds that the situation is similar to the courts. The public can come in and watch, and all the information is public, but a judge and jury are entrusted to carry out the law, he said.

Brian Taniguchi, the Senate's Ways and Means Committee chairman, said there are technical problems with printing up hundreds of copies of the budget worksheets.

"It becomes a question of, Should every citizen in the state get a copy of the worksheet? Then we would have to publish all of it for everyone," he said.

But, Djou said, the issue is about openness and public accountability.

"Ultimately, our relationship is with the people who elect us, and theirs is a greater responsibility," he said.

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