Sunday, May 13, 2001


Retooling the

With 19 Republicans in the House,
a couple of teachers' strikes and union health-care
reform, the 2001 legislative session looked and
sounded different. Was it really a breakthrough
or just slightly disguised politics as usual?

By Ed Case
Democratic Representative

WHEN THE 2001 Legislature adjourned on May 4, House minority leader Galen Fox asserted that the days of politics as usual were over. House majority leader Marcus Oshiro chimed in that most members justifiably felt a tremendous sense of pride and accomplishment. No doubt the legislature did produce landmark results, and most members are relieved to have delivered true reform in crucial areas.

Legislature Even so, a sense of skepticism ranging to disbelief pervades post-session thought as we ask whether something different really did happen. Did we have a breakthrough where we shattered old chains to surge ahead of rapidly evolving sentiment? Did we finally practice what President John F. Kennedy preached, that the basis of effective government is public confidence?

Or did we merely exceed low public expectations? Under the spin, was it just politics as usual, with a few bones thrown to voters hungry for change, enough to suppress the pangs through the 2002 elections?

And, for my own majority Democrats, did we decide to lead the mainstream again, like our heralded past? Or were we just dragged along kicking and screaming by an increased Republican presence?

It was, as one commentator stated, a solid body of work. The few, but major, breaks with the past were worth the price of admission. The Legislature and especially the Democrats proved we can adjust and lead when we decide to. The net result is that the people of Hawaii are better off for what we did and didn't do.

But the end of politics as usual? No, it's way too early for that conclusion.

The stage was set prior to the session. Voters in the 2000 elections were clear: they wanted change; leadership; no games; no excuses; if Democrats couldn't do it, they'd find new Democrats or Republicans who would.

THE BELL CURVE of political thought in Hawaii had shifted. The mainstream, that middle of the river where most voters flow, had changed course. Traditional Democrat liberalism and Republican conservatism were eddying.

Voters wanted fiscal and social moderation, a sustainable government, renewed focus on core needs like education, the economy and environment, public safety and care for the needy. Their electoral choices, mostly moderates from either party with fewer ties to traditional constituencies, gave the promise of a great session.

But the Legislature faltered early on. Organization placed change-adverse legislators in crucial positions. Initial solutions to balancing our upcoming two-year budget sounded like old home week, with the House pushing new taxes and raids on special funds, and the Senate passing a takeback of income tax reductions. Targeted breaks for low-income taxpayers were dismissed out of hand as unaffordable because increasing revenues had to be devoted to spending increases.

This shortsighted approach to finances reached its height with the Senate's budget proposal, which financed massive new spending, including all of the $600 million in raises sought by public employees, gleaned out of raids on the rainy day fund, hurricane relief fund, tourism marketing fund, and some 30 other special funds. This nearly exclusive reliance on generating new revenue ignored the obvious alternatives of better government efficiency and cost controls.

Even the major reforms eventually faced rough going. Privatization did not come out of either chamber; in the House, a floor amendment to implement privatization over the recommendation of the committee chairmen and leadership failed 23-27. Reform of public employee health funds did not emerge until the very end.

Around mid-session, the tanker began to turn, if just slightly, for a combination of reasons. One was that the House, recognizing its bipartisan moderate majority would not support more measures of revenue generation (for which read taxes) and would certainly not override vetoes promised by Governor Cayetano, said no to the Senate's budget. This forced the budget debate back to government efficiency and spending.

Another conflict arose from the session's most difficult issue: public employee raises and the strikes in public education. There was never much question that the budget could fit in $300 million in raises, although even that would preclude equally worthy efforts like increased assistance to the poor, further tax relief and school computers and textbooks. But neither was there ever any doubt that the governor was right (despite the union negotiators' claims that the executive had cooked the books): Raises of more than $300 million, and especially $600 million, could only come with increased taxes or deep spending cuts elsewhere.

It wasn't exactly business as usual in the House where a record
number of Republicans were seated during the 2001 session. In
this file photo, are core GOP stalwarts (clockwise from bottom)
Reps. Galen Fox, Colleen Meyers, Barbara Marumoto
and David Pendleton.

After much handwringing, the Legislature decided against either tax increases or deep cuts and funded $300 million in raises. For most members and the mainstream public, this was a reasonable settlement under difficult fiscal circumstances at the expense of other programs. It also heightened the focus on money-draining government inefficiency and runaway public employee benefit costs.

The increased Republican presence surely made for change. Because they did not suffer the Democrats' customary aversion to open legislative discussion, there was more public debate. But deeper, there was also a shift in the legislative mainstream, especially the House, brought on by a different political philosophy and less allegiance to Democrat power bases. The gravitational force of more Republicans, while not fully in that mainstream, pulled Democrats in that direction, and enabled bipartisan moderate efforts to force publicly supported change.

These factors eventually produced privatization and health fund reform, which nobody can deny do represent clear departures from the political status quo. A (barely) balanced budget not reliant on revenue generation or the usual budget tricks probably fits into that category, as do a handful of other measures.

BUT STILL there were too many failures. Civil service reform remained unfinished business, and even the meager reforms of last year were under constant attack. True education reform was not seriously considered. Public campaign/election reform; an earned income tax credit, food tax credit, and standard deduction increase; dedicated environmental funding; drug treatment prison alternatives; all failed.

A great energy reform bill was gutted by supporters of an industry petrified of change. The Senate quietly scuttled a major component of health fund reform at the unions' urging on the last day, after it had already been approved in a joint conference and by the House. And the overall budget, reliant on optimistic revenue projections, left no cushion against economic downturns to our east and west.

Nor were Republicans excused from responsibility. On several occasions they showed a penchant for political opportunism and a reluctance to demonstrate true leadership at the risk of potential gains.

Two other actions best captured the Legislature's difficulty in jettisoning the past and committing itself fully to the brave new world of change. The first was the House and Senate leadership's agreement, supported by a majority in both chambers (including Republicans), to confer formally on individual chairmen the right to veto majority-supported results.

Careful explanations aside, this was nothing more than a desperate attempt by minority viewpoints both in and out of the Legislature to block change. And it worked: The failure of too many reform initiatives can be laid at the feet of the veto.

The second was the House and Senate leadership's puzzling remarks at session close that future tax increases might be necessary. It was as if the hard work of many members on both sides of the aisle to finally kick the tax/revenue habit had been for naught.

So what, in the big picture, does this all mean? Did the Legislature really turn that corner to leadership as we all want so much, or was the good work of the 2001 session just an aberration from the prevailing status quo? I really want to believe that it's the start of something new, but I can't, not yet.

Ask me again after the 2002 session.

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