Posted on: Wednesday, January 17, 2001
Legislature 2001: Time to seize our destiny
With the economy ticking moderately in a positive direction and with a burst of new millennium energy, the 2001 Hawaii Legislature kicks off today in a positive mood.
Thats a welcome change after years of sessions that began gloomily and proceeded downhill from there. Hawaii was in the middle of an economic slump, and all the big decisions seemed to be beyond our reach, beyond our power to control.
Lawmakers learned an important lesson from those years, however. Even without big inflows of tax dollars, it was possible to set public policy and put in motion ideas that could bring change.
Education and our economy are two good examples.
Legislators witnessed a new school superintendent begin to put in place the administrative and policy changes that would allow a new system of standards and accountability within our public schools.
The work of making the changes proposed by Superintendent Paul LeMahieu is far from over, and it is far from clear that our schools are on the rebound. But there have been positive signals, in test scores as well as in a feeling of hope in the schools.
On the economy, Hawaii is not back to the roaring double-digit growth of decades past, nor should it be. But several rounds of tax cuts, incentives and outreach to new industries have begun to show results.
On the social front, some lawmakers see opportunity within disappointment in the Hawaiian self-determination movement. A series of legal setbacks has cast a cloud over many Hawaiian programs and activities.
While this has upset many, others see a positive side (and a role for the Legislature) in crafting an approach that focuses the Hawaiian community on what it can do for itself.
In short, there is at least a mild level of optimism as lawmakers gather for their 2001 session.
The danger, of course, is that optimism can lead to complacency. A little progress might be enough to scare some lawmakers away from continuing to push the hard choices and difficult decisions that remain to be made.
This must not happen.
If anything, the agenda for this year must be as focused and as direct as the one that faced the Legislature last year. The core issues remain, we would suggest, education and our economy.
Without continued improvement in our public school and university system and without ongoing diversification and steadying of our economy, we never will be able to seize control of our own destiny.
How does this play out in practical terms at this years legislature?
On Hawaiian issues, it means working with the Hawaiian community on constitutional and logical ways to preserve important programs designed to lift up the Hawaiian community. First on that list, of course, is the Hawaiian Homes program.
On education, it means continued support for LeMahieu and his efforts at accountability within the public school system. This means giving the Department of Education the administrative and budgetary freedom it needs to make decisions that work.
It means boosting resources for the University of Hawaii, even as it boosts its own through tuition increases and aggressive pursuit of outside grants and endowment money. And it means allowing the university under autonomy to make the decisions it needs to make in pursuit of greatness.
On the economy, it means creating a regulatory and administrative environment that allows the flowering of a diversified, sustainable economy.
To date, far too much of our economic and regulatory policy appears rooted in the mainstays of the past big agriculture and mass tourism. We need a state economic policy that is in tune with and supports the New Economy.
It also calls for continued modernization of government structures through civil service reform. This means giving the state and the counties the flexibility to manage a 21st-century government for 21st-century conditions.
Reshaping outmoded rules and bureaucratic procedures will provide the room and money to pay public workers what they deserve.
There are, of course, numerous additional issues that could merit attention this year, including the obvious matter of public worker pay raises (is it necessary to be bound to one-size-raise fits all?), energy policy (does the current surge in oil prices mean it is time for a realistic state alternative-energy policy?) and campaign spending reform (didnt the lesson of the last election teach us anything?).
Underlying all, however, is this theme: Hawaiis best chance to control its own future is to make wise and courageous, forward-looking choices in areas we can affect: Hawaiian rights, the local economy and education.
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