Thursday, May 3, 2001

Hawaii State Seal

Union leaders
moving away
from Dems

They vow to target legislators
who passed what they call
anti-union bills

By Richard Borreca

After losing the two most important union votes of this legislative session, Russell Okata, Hawaii Government Employees Association executive director and one of the state's most important Democrats, says he has changed.

"You aren't talking to a Democrat anymore; you are talking to an issues guy," he says. "This is forcing the HGEA to look to Republicans; we are finding out that we have friends there, too."

Legislature Okata's change of heart rests with numbers. The first set is 13-12, the number by which Okata and the other public employee unions lost a key vote Monday in the Senate. The second set is made up of the nine GOP House members and two GOP senators who voted to kill the union health fund reform.

The unions wanted to stop a bill that would bring the public employees health fund trust back into one state- and employee-run program. Currently, the state allows the unions to operate the lucrative health funds, estimated to cost the state nearly $1 billion by 2013.

Health funds auditors say a single fund would be less expensive. The unions say it would cut employee benefits.

Supporters, including pro-labor senators and representatives, call the bill a major piece of government reform. Gov. Ben Cayetano was expected to sign it into law at 3:30 p.m. today.

The Legislature also passed a bill allowing the state and counties to hire private firms to do work usually assigned to public employees.

Labor leaders call the measure anti-union and vow to target those who defied them. Okata raised the ante by saying he would back Republicans. Nine of the 19 Republicans in the state House and two of the three Senate Republicans voted to kill the health fund bill.

"We intend to target them. We intend to make sure all of the people know what they are all about," United Public Workers State Director Gary Rodrigues told a Honolulu television station yesterday.

"This is not something that was done for political benefit," says Sen. Sam Slom (R, Hawaii Kai), who voted for the measure. "The Republicans aren't going to benefit, because we split." But the labor union change is seen by some as the beginning of a shift in the Democratic, pro-union Legislature.

Rep. Ed Case (D, Manoa), who this year quit as Democratic leader, saying other Democrats would not support government reform, likened this week's action to a dam bursting. "Change doesn't happen gradually; it lurches," he said. "The dam doesn't erode; it bursts."

The telling vote, Case said, was at midsession when 23 Democrats and Republicans nearly passed a privatization amendment over the objections of the House leaders and the committee chairmen.

"After the election it was obvious that people wanted change. At first Democrats didn't embrace change, but individually they were thinking a lot about the election," he said.

House Speaker Calvin Say agreed the unprecedented 19 Republicans in the House plus the midsession test vote were signals that House policy was shifting.

"The public employees have always been well received," he said. "But the (union) leadership came out too strong, and that alienates House members."

The GOP said the election showed change was happening and that they were the ones bringing it.

"We are this big flashing neon sign that says, 'We need change,'" Rep. Galen Fox (R, Waikiki), GOP leader, said.

The privatization issue was a long-standing GOP issue, Fox said, although Case and other Democrats noted that changing the health fund has been pushed by both Democrats and Republicans.

Fox speculated the GOP in the House is setting the Legislature's agenda, noting that a bill to raise the age of consent was a GOP issue that proved too popular for Democrats to ignore, "although they passed it begrudgingly," he said.

Reforming the health fund has been a three-year goal of Waianae Democrat Sen. Colleen Hanabusa, who said: "The unions are just as strong as they ever have been. They can still rally the troops and put the fear into certain senators."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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