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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Thursday, September 6, 2001

Hawai'i slips slowly into a 'colonial' role

Slowly but surely, and largely due to our own inattention or inaction, we are slipping back to what can almost be described as a colonial state.

In ways great and small, decisions that should be Hawai'i's to make are being seized by others.

In some cases, this is the inevitable impact of economic globalization and the consolidation of ownership of businesses. There is hardly a sector of the Hawai'i economy today that is driven strictly by local management. Decisions about our economic future are being made in boardrooms from Tokyo to Paris and everywhere in between.

But what about non-economic decisions — social, environmental and human questions? Surely those are ours to make.

Not exactly.

It is an enduring shame for Hawai'i that large portions of our most important institutions — our schools, our prisons and our mental hospital — are under the direct supervision of the federal courts. The courts stepped in when years of inaction led to lawsuits and various forms of consent decrees in which we agreed — under threat of federal sanctions — to fix things up.

It is almost as if we have decided that we need a luna to get us to do our work properly, and so have chosen federal Judge David Ezra to take on the role of the man on horseback who oversaw the labors of plantation hands.

It is not a role Ezra relishes, particularly, but it is one we have forced him into by failing to deal with our responsibilities.

The latest move by "luna" Ezra came this week when he ordered the state to list polluted bodies of water with the federal Environmental Protection Agency, as required by federal law.

State officials are upset, arguing that the order will force them to divert energy and resources from a new listing of polluted waterways due next April.

That's undoubtedly true. But the problem is one of our own making. According to the Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund, which was the prevailing side in the lawsuit decided by Ezra, the state knew about but failed to list at least 50 environmentally impaired streams and other waterways in its 1998 listing.

This may be in part a technical argument over scientific techniques and sampling abilities. And there is no evidence that the state has any desire to see polluted waterways go unguarded or untreated.

But by failing to make our best effort to meet the federal law last time, we now find ourselves forced by the federal courts into doing work we can ill-afford. It is the same problem we face in our prisons, our State Hospital and in the handling of special education children in our public schools.

The blame for this cannot be placed solely on bureaucrats or lawmakers. We get the government we ask for. Until we are willing to meet our obligations under the law (or at least make a full-faith effort to do so), someone else — an overseer — will be forced to make that decision for us.