By Kevin Dayton and Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Capitol Bureau
For a successful politician, Gov. Ben Cayetano has had some rotten luck. He fought his way to the top of Hawaiis political heap, only to find a recession and budget crisis waiting for him.
His friends say he would have done things differently with the luxury of more money and a healthy economy. Cayetanos seventh State of the State address today may be his best chance to craft an agenda more to his liking.
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Lawmakers said the administrations early lobbying efforts this year seemed focused mostly on physical projects, such as the new medical school proposed for Kakaako, rather than the tax policy and government reform efforts that have absorbed Cayetanos attention over the past several years.
The governor wont say what will be in his speech until he delivers it, as is customary. But people close to him said he would have liked to do more for public schools and to support high technology in Hawaii, insight that provides clues to the agenda Cayetano will offer today.
Sprint to the finish
Usually Hawaii governors get to thinking about their "legacy" late in their final term, and observers said Cayetano, first elected in 1994, appears to be no different.
Former Gov. John Waihee said it was natural to want to leave behind something concrete and physical, although governors arent always able to get the Legislature to go along with their big ideas.
"I think its difficult, but on the other hand I think that governors get re-energized in this period," Waihee said. "I think right now he would like very much to gel his legacy and his vision."
For the first five or six years of every governors tenure, "you are constantly in motion," Waihee said. "The last two, you start to think about leaving something behind thats permanent. I think there is a desire for permanence. You can deal with the conceptual issues, but I think every governor wants to see something that he can say he did after leaving office."
That fits with some of the items in Cayetanos proposed construction budget, including $141 million for the new University of Hawaii Medical School facility that would double as a high-tech biomedical research center. He also proposed $70 million for a new aquarium in Kakaako, of which $20 million would be private money.
Both plans square with Cayetanos desire to promote public education and high-tech research.
The governor already has been able to convince lawmakers to buy the Honolulu landmark known as the Hemmeter Building for $22.5 million, and Vicky Cayetano made a pitch along similar lines Friday to the Senate Ways and Means Committee for state money of as much as $1 million money to build a new official governors residence.
The proposal is part of a larger plan to open to the public the current governors residence at Washington Place.
Senate Ways and Means chairman Brian Taniguchi (D-McCully, Moiliili, Manoa) said that hes not ruling out financing the governors proposed aquarium, but his colleagues are "very skeptical."
"Were going to try to see what we can do, but my marching orders are pretty clear that we gotta take a good look at the schools and be sure we do a good job in that direction," he said. "That would take priority over the aquarium."
Taniguchi also attributed skepticism in the Senate partly to the fact that previous governors, including Waihee, had tried to build aquariums there. He said there appeared to be more support for the UH Medical School project, though senators are not particularly concerned about anyones legacy.
"I think the governor has already written his legacy," Taniguchi said. "He was the guy that came in when the economy was going through a major downturn. I think his legacy is that he steered us out of it. I think thats what hes going to be remembered for."
Not the economy
Jim Wang, a retired University of Hawaii-Hilo political science professor, agreed that the public likely would remember Cayetano that way, but not exactly.
"I think thats an easy argument saying he came in when we were in economic bad shape; hes going out now and its not that bad. Those are the circumstances. I dont think thats true that anything he has tried to do has turned the economy around," Wang said.
If there is any legacy for Cayetano, it would be his attempt in the Legislature to enact civil service reform, Wang said. Caye-
tano pitched a variety of proposals to reduce fringe benefits for public workers and make other changes in the states relationship with the public worker unions. Most of his ideas failed.
"We have to give politicians credit for making an attempt, even though its not successful thats the way I look at it," Wang said. "Too often politicians, knowing its a tough problem, dont want to stick their necks out.... I think that by making the attempt, he has paved the way for someone else to accomplish something."
House Speaker Calvin Say contends that Cayetanos legacy already is a done deal: He will be remembered for his support for education.
"His legacy is already, I would say, set in concrete, with all the new schools that have been built under his leadership," said Say (D-Palolo, St. Louis, Kaimuki). He said people often overlook those projects because much of the school construction was outside Honolulus urban core, or on the Neighbor Islands.
Say also cited the tax cuts adopted under Cayetano, which are expected to reduce state tax collections by $1.8 billion from 1999 to 2005.
Any initiative Cayetano may undertake this year would be a footnote to those accomplishments, he said.
Calling Cayetano an "education governor" might sound absurd to his critics at the University of Hawaii and the Department of Education, which have been crying for more state support. But Say believes the criticism is unfair given the constraints Cayetano faced.
"He inherited an administration going into Honolulus urban core recession," Say said. He also inherited the Felix consent decree, which requires that new services be provided to children with mental disabilities. That absorbed huge sums of state money.
As for taxes, Cayetano did float a proposal recently to cut income taxes, and that proposal may be part of his address tomorrow. He made a similar proposal in 1999. But it would be a bit ironic if Cayetano ends up being remembered as a tax-cutting governor.
In fact, he wanted the state both to increase the general excise tax and cut income taxes in 1998 as part of the Economic Revitalization Task Force package. The Legislature rejected the excise tax increase, adopting only the income tax cut.
The following year, Cayetano proposed a new tax on cars, while suggesting another cut in income taxes. The Legislature rejected both ideas.
Lawmakers eventually approved a reduction in the excise tax in 1999, a proposal the Cayetano administration initially opposed.
Administration experts advised lawmakers to shelve the excise tax cut until it could be studied further.
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