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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, January 23, 2003

Minefield laid in Legislature

By David Shapiro

Gov. Linda Lingle may have delivered her first State of the State speech in friendly and measured tones Tuesday, but those were political cluster bombs she was throwing at Democratic lawmakers and their benefactors in the public employee unions.

Lingle, the first Republican governor in 40 years, tried to soothe nervous unions during her campaign by promising not to lay off any state employees.

But her agenda outlined Tuesday was anything but soothing to public unions, asking them to accept sweeping changes that would slash their power and reach in state affairs as Lingle pursues her goals of good jobs, good schools and good government.

Democratic legislators know a minefield when they see one and visibly squirmed as the governor proposed:

  • No across-the-board pay raises for public employees until state finances improve.
  • Breaking the statewide Board of Education into seven local boards that presumably would handle their own labor relations. Unions for teachers and support staff would be spread thin and lose the clout of centralized negotiations for uniform pay and benefits.
  • More support for charter schools that operate independently from the centralized school system, and ending the requirement that teachers and other charter school employees belong to the same unions as their counterparts in the public schools.
  • Forcing public school principals out of their union so they can fully function as the important managers they are. This essential first step toward improving our schools is opposed by the unions and many principals who like the security of being unionized.
  • Giving counties full responsibility for their own collective bargaining and civil service systems, ending the bizarre practice in which the state can essentially force labor contract terms on unwilling counties. Again, it would be more difficult for unions to enforce their will without the political convenience of centralized negotiations.

To get these measures passed, Lingle will have to tap her considerable communications skills to rally overwhelming public support against the resistance public employee unions are sure to put up.

Democratic lawmakers will listen to the unions both by philosophical inclination and because the unions fired a warning shot their way in the last election when they banded together to soundly defeat four Democratic senators who had embraced civil service reform.

But lawmakers can't ignore Lingle, either. The governor enjoys a commanding political position and has a mandate for change. If legislators dismiss her proposals with inaction or half-measures and the economy and public schools don't improve, they have to face voters again before Lingle does.

Lingle's one vulnerability is the state budget. She starts with a $175 million shortfall from her refusal to tap the Hurricane Relief Fund. She's proposing to give away another $100 million or more by increasing the standard income tax deduction, granting a tax credit for Ko Olina development and returning uncontested traffic fines to the counties.

While she paid a lot of lip service to fiscal responsibility in her speech, she remained as vague as ever about how she'll balance the state budget.

She's been in office for 50 days, and it's time for her to end this game of Reaganesque voodoo economics. She needs to gain control of the budget issue early in the session by showing lawmakers a specific, fair and workable plan to balance state spending.

Otherwise, they'll be happy to declare a budget crisis, blame it on Lingle and fiddle with it the whole session as an excuse to put aside the new governor's worthy proposals to reform government, revitalize our economy and fix our schools.

David Shapiro can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.