Raising Cane

Rob Perez

Office on women’s equity
faces Lingle budget veto

Compared with the $7.5 billion proposed state budget, it's a mere pittance, barely more than pocket change. But to the Hawaii State Commission on the Status of Women, it's what keeps the doors open each year.

We're talking about roughly $95,000, or 0.00126 percent of the proposed state budget.

That's not much more than what the University of Hawaii spent ($82,000) on the logo-design fiasco.

It's about what taxpayers cough up for Gov. Linda Lingle's salary.

Yet in these tough fiscal times, Lingle says we can't afford the annual appropriation for the only statewide entity that pushes for equity for Hawaii's women and girls.

The Republican governor, while supporting the commission's goals, instead wants the agency to pay for its day-to-day operations using money from a trust fund it administers.

There's one problem with that approach: The trust fund money, by and large, is restricted. The vast majority of the funds can't be used for daily operations -- a restriction a state deputy attorney general noted at a recent commission meeting.

So if Lingle decides to delete the $95,000 appropriation in the budget, approved by the Legislature, the agency likely would be stuck with no operating money starting in the new fiscal year in July.

It would have to figure out how to run its lean, two-person office essentially without any funds.

A Lingle spokesman said the governor has not decided whether she will exercise her line-item veto authority and delete the money from the state budget. She has until early July to take action on the budget bill.

What she decides will be closely watched, not just here but by women's advocates on the mainland.

"It's a shame a woman governor might choose to cut that," said Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research in Washington, D.C., and vice chair of the National Council of Women's Organizations. "It's very ironic."

Said Jennifer Sweeney, public policy director for the D.C.-based Business and Professional Women/USA: "That's a small amount for what I think is a pretty big return on your investment. When the state can't invest $95,000 on the well-being of women and girls, what does that say? What are the priorities of the state?"

The Lingle administration has said it is moving the commission toward self-sufficiency, as the Legislature intended when lawmakers passed a bill in 2000 creating the trust fund.

"Your committee believes that the fund is an excellent method of allowing the commission to become self-funded, and it would set an example for other commissions with a laudable public purpose to do the same," said a report by Sen. Suzanne Chun Oakland (D, Kalihi-Liliha).

But questions have been raised about Lingle's motives, given that the commission's executive director, Allicyn Hikida Tasaka, and several commissioners were high-profile supporters of Lingle's Democratic opponent, former Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono, in the 2002 gubernatorial race. Lingle's spokesman has denied any political motivation.

When the trust fund bill was passed, Tasaka said the intent wasn't to remove the commission from state government nor to make it self-sufficient.

Indeed, the Legislature in the recently ended session passed a resolution, opposed only by a handful of Republican lawmakers, that urged Lingle to allocate adequate funding for the commission, which helps promote economic, political and social equality for women. The resolution was supported by numerous community organizations.

The commission has attempted to set up a meeting with Lingle or her senior advisor, but so far nothing has come about.

"We're not clear exactly what the administration's intent is for us," Tasaka said.

The commission has more than $123,000 in uncommitted money in its trust fund, and the vast majority of that is from the state's share of a 2001 national settlement in an antitrust lawsuit.

The documents governing the settlement money restrict what the funds can be used for. One court agreement says the money must go to nonprofit organizations for projects related to women's health issues.

At its March board meeting, a deputy attorney general told the commissioners that the money could not be used for daily operations, according to Tasaka. The AG's Office declined comment.

The dilemma that the commission faces mirrors what has happened or is happening in a few other states, where budget pressures are prompting some politicians to reconsider funding for similar women's organizations.

What is drawing attention to Hawaii's case is that the funding may be cut by the state's first woman governor.

"There is quite a bit of interest nationally," said Leslie Wilkins, the commission's chairwoman.

If Lingle decides to cut the money, the attention Hawaii gets won't be flattering.

So with today being Mother's Day, it is an appropriate time to drive home the message that the Legislature already has sent to the governor: Don't cut the commission funding.

Even in tight fiscal times, $95,000 is not too steep a price to demonstrate the state's continuing commitment to equity for women.

Star-Bulletin columnist Rob Perez writes on issues
and events affecting Hawaii. Fax 529-4750, or write to
Honolulu Star-Bulletin, 500 Ala Moana Blvd., No. 7-210,
Honolulu 96813. He can also be reached
by e-mail at:


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