Friday, September 7, 2001

Reasons must be good
for tapping trust fund

The issue: Senator Inouye has suggested
that Congress dip into Social Security surpluses
to pay for increases in defense spending.

HAVING frightened the daylights out of baby boomers by pointing to threats to the solvency of Social Security, politicians are beginning to eye the system's surplus to fund their favorite programs or to avoid a recession. Americans who unmistakably read politicians' lips in last year's election have reason to be confused. Congress will have to do a lot of explaining before it uses Social Security dollars for anything but paying down the national debt.

Senator Inouye has suggested that Congress have the latitude to use surplus Medicare or Social Security funds to pay for the Bush administration's request for $18.4 billion in extra defense spending in the next fiscal year. New Mexico Sen. Pete Domenici, the top Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, thinks the surplus should be used for education. Either approach could benefit Hawaii, which feasts on the Pentagon and desperately needs help in paying for special education.

The Congressional Budget Office reported last week that the government would almost certainly have to tap into Social Security revenues because of the economic slump and the tax cut. It predicted that the $2 billion budget surplus outside Social Security will not be enough to pay for the defense budget increase alone. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told Inouye's Defense Appropriations subcommittee that the Pentagon will need "every nickel" of that increase.

President Bush's commission on overhauling Social Security sounded the alarm only a few weeks ago that the system would run short of money to pay for promised benefits within the next few decades. The president has promised that he will not use Social Security surpluses for general purposes except in cases of war or recession. Administration officials have not defined recession.

Would invading Social Security's so-called lockbox really put people who are close to retirement in harm's way? That is what Americans have been led to believe, but economists now say it is not so. Analysts explain that spending a modest part of the Social Security surplus, which the administration projects to be $171 billion next year, would do no real harm in the short run.

"I have now talked to at least 15 economists," Domenici says. "None of them believe that is good economic policy for America, to say we cannot touch those (funds) in a time of declining growth."

Conventional economic wisdom dictates that Congress cut taxes and increase spending during a weak economy. Placing Social Security funds off limits could force Congress to raise taxes and cut spending, exactly the opposite of what economists prescribe.

In the background, politicians should heed the admonition of Republican pollster Frank Luntz: "Social Security trumps everything else, except the economy. Candidates better have a darned good reason -- and it better be a dire reason -- for messing with the so-called trust fund."

Police finally get serious
about accident gridlock

The issue: The Honolulu Police Department
has begun looking for ways to ease the
gridlock in traffic after auto accidents.

The police department's search for the means to alleviate the inevitable slowdown or halt in traffic every time there is an automobile accident on this tight little island is welcome -- and about a quarter-century overdue. It should be expanded to cover not only tragedies like the one that took the life of Elizabeth Kekoa two Sundays ago but every fender-bender that hinders the flow of traffic.

Anecdotal evidence abounds that the first cop to arrive on the scene of even a minor accident rightly checks first to see whether anyone has been hurt. Then he starts to investigate. While he is taking notes, a second cop arrives -- as does a third and a fourth and a fifth. One handles the accident while the others stand around. Rarely does a policeman think to direct traffic to keep people moving.

Nor are most drivers exempt from responsibility. The rubberneckers slow to a crawl, stacking up cars and trucks behind them, sometimes for miles -- and on both sides of the road as drivers going in the opposite direction slow down to gawk at whatever is going on across the road. The wonder of it all is that there have not been more rear-enders caused by rubberneckers. Like move on, already.

Recent accidents have generated suggestions that the state seek a federal grant and call in consultants from the mainland. That sounds like nothing so much as bureaucratic dodge-ball. It should not take a rocket engineer to figure out how to handle these situations. As Maj. Robert Prasser, in charge of HPD's traffic division, has so cogently said: "A lot of this is really an HPD management issue, as opposed to throwing money at it."

Let's assume that this effort has been well started. Mayor Harris, the Police Commission, the City Council and Chief of Police Lee Donahue should make sure that it is carried through and implemented. Prasser is reported to have said he would have a plan in October. The mayor and the other authorities should hold him to that, ensure that a full-scale report is made to the public, and then see that the plan is put into force.

Published by Oahu Publications Inc., a subsidiary of Black Press.

Don Kendall, President

John Flanagan, publisher and editor in chief 529-4748;
Frank Bridgewater, managing editor 529-4791;
Michael Rovner,
assistant managing editor 529-4768;
Lucy Young-Oda, assistant managing editor 529-4762;

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