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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, May 2, 2002

The 2002 Legislature decides to get bold

In a strange way, it will be several years before we know for sure whether the 2002 session of the Hawai'i Legislature was a success or not.

That's because several of its more high-profile decisions have a built-in time delay. There is plenty of time to change, water down or even abandon these ideas before they go into effect.

But by comparison with other, relatively timid sessions, it must be said that this year's group was nothing if not bold.

Death with Dignity

Perhaps the boldest bill is the so-called Death with Dignity or assisted-suicide proposal. A deeply divided Senate is due to take a final vote on this measure today. It should pass, putting Hawai'i on the map with Oregon as having a law that would allow terminally ill patients to receive medication that would end their life.

As with abortion, this is an issue with profound ethical and moral dimensions. But as it did with abortion some three decades ago, Hawai'i should make the progressive decision to leave this intensely personal decision to an individual and his or her physician.

Two highly contentious issues come with a major escape hatch. The first is the so-called "cap" on wholesale and retail gasoline prices in the Islands. The other is the "bottle bill" that would create a five-cent deposit fee.

In both cases, the actual implementation of the law is some time in the future. In the case of the bottle bill, it is difficult to see why the legislation has to be delayed until 2005. Perhaps some time is needed for distributors and stores to set up collection and storage centers and make other logistical arrangements.

But three years is too long to wait. Lawmakers should consider cutting back on the lag time next session.

No more senseless studies

The gasoline price-control bill wouldn't take place until 2004. If that time is used wisely, it could be worthwhile. There is a danger that the state will get dragged into another endless round of hearings and studies on whether, in fact, our wholesale prices are excessively high, as the state has charged. This would be reinventing the wheel and would not likely learn anything not discovered during the four years of sworn depositions and investigations that went into the state's lawsuit against the companies.

But if the time is used to study a price-control mechanism that makes sense, is based on a fair benchmark and does not have drastic unintended consequences (such as driving the small companies or Neighbor Island retailers out of business), then it will be well spent.

Elsewhere, legislators approved a useful measure to create a state-organized pool to negotiate prescription-drug discounts for consumers, particularly the elderly. The cost of drugs for senior citizens is one of the major unaddressed consumer issues in the state.

And they should be commended for approving a rate oversight — or regulation — law for health insurance in Hawai'i. While the idea was opposed strenuously by the major health insurers, it would simply put in place a system that appears to have worked well for other lines of insurance in Hawai'i, including casualty, worker's compensation and automobile no-fault.

The Insurance Commission would look at the rate-making practices of the big insurers (and for all practical purposes, there are only two) to determine if rates are inadequate, excessive or unfairly discriminatory.

Economic development

In the arena of economic development, the highest-profile measure is one that would create some $75 million in tax credits for the development of a major "destination" resort project at Ko Olina in West O'ahu.

This has a lot of pluses, along with some minuses. The tax credits would go to hotel or time-share developers who agreed to front the costs of a major aquarium, marine research and athletic complex at the Ko Olina resort.

With those "world-class" attractions in place, it presumably would be easier to get developers to build the resort hotels and condos that will fulfill a long-delayed dream for Ko Olina. Strictly in terms of economic development, this makes sense since the state would get a new visitor attraction and would only be giving up tax credits on income that otherwise might never have been earned.

But before the deal is done, the state must be assured that it is on legally sound ground to favor one developer over another and that the long-term cost of maintaining and running those world-class attractions will not become a burden on the taxpayers.

As with so many complicated issues, there are many devilish details to be sorted out in this year's legislation. We are not through debating them. But lawmakers showed the courage to move the discussion forward and make a decision.

Whether one agrees with everything that was done or not, that unaccustomed decisiveness deserves applause.