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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, September 25, 2001

Economic crisis offers unique opportunities

The Oct. 15 special session of the Hawai'i Legislature offers a historic opportunity to finally set in motion economic and political changes that have been a decade in the making.

Ever since the economic slump that followed the Gulf War, local business and political leaders have been struggling to find ways to diversify and strengthen our economy. It has become obvious that tourism, while always important, is simply too volatile an industry to carry the entire state.

But what? There have been some important changes in our economic mix as we encouraged high-tech industries, began laying the groundwork for biotech, saw early signs of success in our effort to become a major business and conference center and pursued diversified, high-value agriculture.

Yet behind those efforts lay the conviction that tourism would inevitably rebound and again become the focus of our economic life. And to some degree, that is true. Tourism — or more broadly, travel — will always be a key part of the Island economy.

But one could just sense a vague sigh of relief, a lessening of the energy level, over the past year or so when the economy showed modest improvement and the visitor numbers strengthened. We know now we cannot afford to ever sit back and let things take care of themselves. We must seize control of our future.

The special session will hear proposals from Gov. Ben Cayetano for a huge economy-boosting billion-dollar construction program, proposals for tax relief and perhaps even a deferment of the general excise tax, which hits small business the hardest.

He'll also urge a new commitment to education spending — both higher and lower — on the grounds of economic diversification and on the theory that our long-term future depends on a well-educated citizenry.

Lawmakers will have ideas of their own, of course, and together, the governor and the Legislature can make huge strides toward dealing both with our immediate economic fears as well as our long-term economic future.

None of this will happen, however, if we slip back into our traditional turf-protecting, change-averse, timid mode of operating. This will require give on all fronts: The unions will have to accept that job protection must take a back seat, at least for now, to jobs. For example, if the near future finds large numbers of people unexpectedly out of work, why not use some of them to fill urgently needed teaching slots in our public schools, even if they lack all the required teaching credentials?

Some may find they enjoy the experience and move on to become fully qualified teachers. Others will go back to the private sector but in the meantime, they will have drawn down a paycheck and bought time for the state in its efforts to fill the teaching ranks.

In politics, Democrats will have to recognize that good ideas do not simply belong to those with a majority of the votes. Republicans in the minority will have to accept that their job, today, is to come up with solutions rather than simply finding fault with how the majority handles the problems.

Some of the red tape that holds government down — no matter how good-intentioned and sensible — will have to take a temporary back seat to speed, efficiency and the pressing need to get things moving.

There will be more. The point is that Hawai'i faces a difficult time ahead, but also great prospects. If we do this right, we will come out the other side strengthened, wiser and even better prepared with a sturdy, sustainable economy that protects and preserves our special Island heritage.