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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, September 27, 2001

From this crisis, we must seize opportunity

Let's stop dithering.

We saw this before, when the visitor stream dried up during the Gulf War, and we still haven't changed. Too many of us still cling to a "cargo cult" mentality — the idea that someone, somewhere, will drop in on us and bring prosperity along — if only we avoid risk-taking and wait patiently enough.

In the face of a faltering tourist industry caused by the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks on the East Coast, we must take decisive action.

Yet lawmakers are worried that Gov. Ben Cayetano's proposal to borrow and spend $1 billion on construction projects to stimulate our economy might raise our debt ceiling too high. They worry that some of the projects might not be "necessary."

It's time for action

What would they do instead? Wait for a rebirth in the sandalwood market? How about whaling?

Hawai'i has a history of waiting for fate to announce its intentions, instead of seizing our future in our own hands.

True, some of the projects Cayetano is proposing are old ones dusted off for a new crisis. But the need for some — not all — of these projects is undeniable; they should have been built years ago.

Let's not repeat the experience of the Hawai'i Convention Center, delayed fully 20 years as we bickered over a proper location. When we finally got around to building it, despite lingering drawbacks to the site finally chosen, we ended up with an edifice in which we all can take pride.

To be sure, it would be vastly more beneficial today had we built it when the need was first identified, when there were a handful of competing convention centers, instead of dozens.

Repair our schools

Cayetano proposes that we spend heavily to repair and modernize our public school and higher education campuses. In fact, the maintenance backlog at these schools — running into the hundreds of millions of dollars — is intolerable and inexcusable. The Legislature has tolerated this condition too long.

At our present rate of spending, it will take us 20 years to catch up on these repairs, by which time today's new buildings will be deteriorating. It doesn't have to be that way. We can listen to Cayetano and put large numbers of construction workers on the job on an emergency basis.

What happens if fixing our schools doesn't succeed in putting the economy entirely back on track? We'd still be left with — for the first time in anyone's memory — a viable education infrastructure.

And when do we expect lower interest rates?

We've been saying for years that we must develop a highly educated work force to attract high-tech firms; that the university must be the engine to lug our economy into the 21st century; that we must build a new medical school and associated research campus to bring us a share of the biotech industry.

How can we do any of this with crumbling, rotting, hot and dusty campuses? We must allow this crisis to bring needed change. We must take action.

Make no mistake: Hawai'i's visitor industry remains second to none. But lawmakers are woefully mistaken if they imagine they can stand by and wait for another year with 7 million visitors.

We must spend wisely as we attempt to restore visitor arrivals and spending to pre-Sept. 11 levels. But we must stop putting all of our eggs in this single fragile basket.

Prison isn't answer

If there's an unneeded project among those suggested by Cayetano, it's a new prison. It's become increasingly clear that what we need is more treatment and more alternative sentencing, not more warehousing of miscreants. Let's not make the mistake California has made in committing itself to an unlimited prison building program to house a seemingly inexhaustible number of inmates.

When legislators gather Oct. 15 in their special session, they must not abandon their collective prudence and wisdom, or their obligations of scrutiny. In streamlining government procurement procedures, they must not relinquish accountability.

But they must act, decisively and boldly, now.