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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, April 14, 2002

The games they play at Legislature

By Jerry Burris
Advertiser Editorial Page Editor

The sitting members of the Hawai'i Legislature, each of whom is up for re-election this year, handed themselves a sweet political gift last week when they moved to repeal the wildly unpopular "van-cam" program.

It's a classic example of the benefits of incumbency.

Now judging from the letters and commentary one sees about our so-called "do nothing" Legislature, you'd think that being a sitting representative or senator would be just about the worst thing that could happen to a candidate. But it doesn't work that way.

While our voters may be unhappy with the Legislature as an institution, they are ordinarily more than fond of their own particular representative. Or, it certainly appears that way based on the frequency with which incumbents are re-elected.

Part of the explanation, of course, is simple familiarity. When folks go into the voting booth, they tend to gravitate to the names they know: by definition the incumbent.

But part of the explanation lies in the fact that incumbents can turn back generalized hostility toward the Legislature with specific bragging about specific accomplishments: a covered walkway for a school, money for a popular district program. or, say, "I helped kill that damned van-cam program."

Never mind that the folks who voted to kill the program where, by-and-large, the same folks who voted to create it in the first place. Memories are short, and, come this election season, you can bet there will be lots of bragging about the demise of this despised operation.

It is this same theory of moving from the general to the specific that has motivated House Republicans to try to corner their Democratic colleagues into taking votes that make for embarrassing campaign fodder. This was the technique used last year in the so-called "age of consent" issue. And it has been employed several times this year.

One recent example is when the House Republicans sought to force a vote on a measure that — in effect — would have partially reversed last year's decision to take control of millions of public employee health insurance dollars away from the individual unions and put it back in state hands.

Lawmakers had become convinced that an earlier law allowing the unions to control their own health funds was costing the state money and unnecessarily enriching the unions. Essentially, the unions were providing insurance primarily for the healthy working members while the state was stuck providing insurance for high-cost retirees and others.

The issue this time around was a measure that would let the teachers' union re-create a private health fund, effectively going backward from last year's vote. The GOP caucus knew the measure was not likely to pass, but by forcing it out of committee, they thought, they could position the Democrats into voting against something desperately desired by the public teacher's union.

As it turned out, a series of parliamentary moves sidestepped the plan this time. But there will be other such moves. You can count on it.

Reach Jerry Burris through letters@honoluluadvertiser.com.