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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, December 1, 2002

Lingle details her goals for term as governor

By Gordon Y.K. Pang and Lynda Arakawa
Advertiser Capitol Bureau


"(People will) hear me talk about education, trust and the economy for the next four years," said Gov.-Elect Linda Lingle, "because that's what I told people I would focus on. ..."

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Ask for a one-word description of Hawai'i's new governor from those who know Linda Lingle, and chances are that's what you'll hear.

"Linda's style sometimes seems abrasive to some people, because she's so focused and she won't let her focus be broken and redirected where it shouldn't be," said Maui Mayor-elect Alan Arakawa, a Council member when Lingle was the Valley Island mayor.

Randall Roth, a University of Hawai'i law professor and Lingle's newly appointed senior policy advisor, recalls that when they are interrupted during an important conversation, Lingle will return to the issue later "like a laser beam."

"She doesn't get distracted, like most people do, by all the things that go on around her. She's aware of everything, but she keeps her eye on the ball — on all the balls — waiting for her to move."

When it is suggested to Lingle that some political analysts believe she is too focused, scripted and narrow-minded, her normally soft voice turns momentarily stern.

"They'll hear me talk about education, trust and the economy for the next four years, because that's what I told people I would focus on, and that's what I will focus on," Lingle said.

"I won't change my script just to make it more interesting for a reporter. I won't change the issues that I'm going to focus on because a reporter has heard it too many times."

Tomorrow the 49-year-old former journalist gets sworn in as the state's sixth governor. Lingle will also be its first Republican leader since William Quinn relinquished the reins to John A. Burns in 1962.

Lingle said her primary focus would be three issues: education, restoring trust in government and economic development.

With wary Democrats still firmly in charge of both houses of the Legislature, and public worker unions seeking to regain their influence at the State Capitol, it remains to be seen whether Lingle will be able to check off items on that focused agenda.

Not surprisingly, she kept hark-ening back to those themes during a wide-ranging, hourlong interview with The Advertiser last week.

Getting started

A plan to create seven local school boards has been among Lingle's most debated ideas. She simply wants the Legislature to let the proposal be placed on the ballot as a state constitutional amendment.

"It's a recognition that maybe this is a better way to do this, and we should let the public be a part of the decision-making," she said.

Rumors that Lingle asked Board of Education Superintendent Patricia Hamamoto to resign were "horribly false," Lingle said, adding that she is "positive" she will be able to work with the schools chief and the board.

Look also for Lingle to be proposing a package of ethics reform bills before the coming Legislature.

"Those bills will revolve around the contracting process," she said. "We have a bill relating to bribing of government officials that has been proposed before and hasn't gone; mandatory jail time for public corruption — those types of things."

She also is firm on eliminating the excise tax on medical care and products, and reinstituting food tax credits for the needy, though opponents have suggested such proposals could put a serious dent in an already austere budget cycle.

"Some of the tax credits that I've talked about, in my way of thinking, actually do more for the economy," Lingle said. The savings a family gets on a weekly gallon of milk from not paying the 4 percent excise tax will be spent elsewhere, such as for a new pair of athletic shoes or car stereo, she said. "The money doesn't evaporate. It stays in the economy — just in a form they get to decide."

Lingle also suggested she would take to the Legislature a proposal to address exorbitant prescription drug costs, but she would not disclose specifics until meeting with lawmakers.

Opponents rule

Lingle's relationship with the Democratic-controlled House and Senate will be watched closely.

Jim Wang, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Hawai'i-Hilo, predicted rough going. "She has to work with the Legislature; I don't really know to what extent she will be able to get those lawmakers working with her," Wang said. "As a Republican, there are going to be a lot of problems. As to whether or not she's able to accomplish what she has promised, it's hard."

The House has 36 Democrats and 15 Republicans, while the Senate is made up of 20 Democrats and five Republicans.

For now, anyway, the new governor and Democratic leaders are welcoming each other with open arms.

Lingle said many governors she spoke to on her recent Mainland trip suggested it can be easier to work with a Legislature dominated by the opposing party. Disagreement is "a little more expected and accepted," she said, while dissension from one's own party might cut deeper.

Lingle noted she had spent eight years as Maui mayor with never more than three Republicans sitting on the nine-member County Council.

The governor-elect has been invited to meet with majority leaders in both houses this week, and said she expects all sides to be cordial.

"I want to hear what their priorities are," she said. "I don't think the public will accept a blatant, partisan response on either side."

Senate President Robert Bunda agreed. "From my experience with working with her in the past as mayor, and taking some of the issues she's come to the Legislature to advocate on, she's fairly level-headed and I hope that we can actually work together," he said.

House Majority Whip Brian Schatz said Democrats want to work with her, but "at the same time we want to make sure that Lingle's agenda is a moderate one. And we want to make it clear that we will not roll over to the Bush administration's priorities."

Expect a honeymoon period, said state Sen. Colleen Hanabusa. "I don't think you're going to have a Cayetano situation, where he's blasting the Legislature," she said. "I don't think Gov. Lingle will do that.

"At the same time, I don't think you'll have legislators blasting back. There will be a feeling-out period where I think everyone is going to be careful, but looking at the best interest of the state. You're going to hear more of that: 'In the best interest of the state.' "

Lingle said she expects strong support from Republicans in both houses. "Because we're very close," she said. "Having been the party's chairman, I think, makes a difference. I campaigned with so many of them, and our agendas are so much in alignment."

Seeking sacrifices

Another task sure to take up much of Lingle's energy in her first year will be negotiations with the public worker unions. Contracts for about 57,000 state and county workers are scheduled to expire June 30. The budget submitted Friday by Cayetano, who has had his own run-ins with the unions, proposes no money for raises.

Lingle said she had met with leaders from the Hawai'i State Teachers Association and had requests to meet with officials from the Hawai'i Government Employees Association and the United Public Workers, the two other largest unions in the state.

"Because the contracts are coming up in June, it will obviously be a priority," Lingle said of union negotiations. She repeated, however, that it was too early in the process to determine whether raises could be incorporated into the coming year's budget.

"I want to get a better handle on the budget numbers," she said, noting that the state Council on Revenues would provide its next financial estimates just before the Legislature opens in mid-January.

She hinted that she might ask unions for some concessions.

"I think it's pretty clear from the beginning that there is a tough budget situation in Hawai'i," she said. "I want the public employees to be part of the solution to that, and I'm looking forward to meeting with the unions about it. I will ask them to take a long-term view of our budget, of our finances, and the worst-case scenario."

Partly faithful

Lingle beat Lt. Gov. Mazie Hirono by 17,000 votes last month, despite receiving fewer votes than she did four years ago. The new governor figures the 197,009 voters who supported her can be divided into two categories — those who ardently believed in her message and those who simply felt any change was good.

"I feel an obligation to both sides to perform well," Lingle said. "For the people who believed in me, I want to make sure their belief was well placed. For those people who thought, 'Just give her a chance,' I want to live up to what they hoped would happen.

"Because that's what it was — it was a hope that I would be able to improve the schools, expand the economy and restore trust. ... I believe they have good wishes in their hearts about it, but now I'm going to have to show them that they made the right decision."

Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at gpang@honoluluadvertiser.com and Lynda Arakawa at larakawa@honoluluadvertiser.com. They also can be reached at 525-8070.