Tests await Legislature

Education, tax hikes and
the 'ice' problem are expected
to be key issues this year

Education reform and curbing Hawaii's appetite for illegal drugs such as crystal methamphetamine are the big issues before this year's Legislature. But below the surface, controlling Democratic leaders look at the session as a key test for Republican Gov. Linda Lingle.

The session starts at 10 a.m. Wednesday and is expected to run until May 6.

The undercurrent of political combat leading up to the critical fall elections is also likely to dominate the Legislature's final product.

"It is going to be a very crucial election. The Democrats have to be bold in their legislation," said Rep. Joe Souki, (D, Waihee-Wailuku).

The veteran former House speaker advises the Democrats to control legislation with their own plans and not be satisfied with halting Lingle's agenda.

"We can't just say: 'Your program is no good.' We have to have something that the public thinks is acceptable," Souki said.

Senate President Robert Bunda noted that if the GOP has an agenda, "the Democratic caucus needs to have its own agenda."

"We are open to cooperation. You have not seen a constant barrage of criticism from us," said Bunda (D, Kaena-Wahiawa-Pupukea).

Because of the renewed calls for education reform, Pat Hamamoto, superintendent of education, will address a joint session of the Legislature on Jan. 28.

According to the Senate President's Office, Hamamoto's "state of the schools" address will be the first time that any Department of Education chief has formally spoken to both House and Senate members in a joint floor session.

Right behind education and ice is the controversy over tax increases. But neither the Lingle administration nor the Democrats in the Legislature appear willing to raise taxes to move agendas.

Lingle raised the expectations of commuters hoping for a traffic solution this summer when she convened a series of transportation meetings and announced that the city should take the lead in building a rail system.

The 22-mile line would also need a tax increase, Lingle said.

But she said the state should simply allow the county to decide for itself if it wanted to raise taxes for a transit system.

Asked now if she would lead the charge for mass transit in this legislative session, Lingle said: "No."

"Rapid transit is a city issue ... It is not an major focus for me this session.

"It is clearly a city issue and something that they will have to step up on," Lingle said.

Lawmakers agree that despite a projected upturn in the state economy, this is not the year to consider raising taxes.

"I don't think the Legislature is inclined to take it up," said Sen. Colleen Hanabusa (D, Nanakuli-Makua), the Democratic majority leader.

After a summer of hearings by both the administration and lawmakers on the problem of crystal methamphetamine or "ice" addiction, there is no acceptance between the parties about what should be done.

Lawmakers are proposing a series of treatment plans and increased educational outreach programs with a price tag of nearly $22 million. Lingle says the Legislature is "throwing money" at the problem and is looking instead for expanded police powers.

The legislative hearings around the state show "almost universal support for treatment" instead of concentrating on punishment, according to Hanabusa, who is also Senate Judiciary Committee chairwoman.

"We think we can have our biggest bang for the buck by reaching the kids with education," Hanabusa said.

The divide between the Lingle administration and various education groups in the Legislature is just as deep. Lingle put together a special committee this summer to recommend breaking up the state-wide school board into seven smaller boards and changing how public education would be funded.

There are now other plans to raise the number of school board members to 17 from 13 and also change the funding formulas.

It is expected that Hamamoto will reveal her own plans for school reform during her legislative address.

Legislators and Lingle are also split on how to address business issues. Lingle approaches business as something to encourage. Democratic lawmakers are looking at increasing consumer protection and limiting prices on daily necessities such as gasoline and prescription drugs.

Business leaders, such as the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, however, are looking for some agreement between the two.

"Effective leaders learn how to build coalitions to do the right thing," says Robin Campaniano, the chamber board's chairman.

Still at issue for Lingle are requested tax credits for Waikiki hotel construction. Major hotel developers are lobbying hard for tax breaks, but Lingle rejected them last year. Now she says they are still under consideration.

"We are still talking about it, it is the one issue that we are still grappling with. We are trying to take a broader look at the issues," Lingle said.

Last week, Lingle hinted at part of her Waikiki plan, telling attendees at the Sony high-tech conference that she is looking for a "wireless Waikiki" with broadband Internet communication available in the tourist area.

Lingle, however, was not specific about what she envisioned.

Underscoring the entire session is the effort by Lingle to win more GOP seats in the Legislature and the effort by Democrats to hold on to their power.

The critical number in both chambers is three, as an increase of three GOP members in either the House or Senate would give the Republicans the power to sustain a Lingle veto.

"She already, as governor, has the power to line-item veto. If we cannot override her vetoes, we become almost helpless," said Democrat Souki. "We have to make sure we don't lose three votes."

Lingle dismisses speculation about the political impact of this legislative session, but she already has helped the GOP raise nearly $1 million for the fall campaign and has been involved in helping to recruit candidates to run against Democratic incumbents.


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