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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 21, 2004


Legislative unity? Forget it

By David Shapiro

As the Legislature opens, we're hearing the usual pleas for our Republican governor and Democratic lawmakers to put politics aside and work together for the common good.

That's an unlikely proposition. With all that's at stake in this year's election, it will be impossible to keep politics out of the Legislature.

A little political competition isn't necessarily bad, however. If the two sides compete constructively on the high road, we could see real progress on tough issues such as school reform and the war on drugs.

If they sink into the political gutter of obstructing the other side from achieving anything to run on, it sets up an election of finger-pointing that can only leave voters feeling cheated and frustrated.

The fall elections will be hard-fought. Gov. Linda Lingle must regain three of the Republican House seats lost in 2002 to have enough votes to sustain her vetoes — and give herself more leverage to build a winning record for her own re-election campaign in 2006.

If the Democrats can hold their veto-proof majority in the Legislature, they'll control the agenda and greatly enhance their chances of regaining the governorship.

Education and drug abatement will define the 2004 Legislature. In both cases, the side with a plan going in has the advantage.

Lingle has the upper hand on school reform. While questions still surround her proposal to break the statewide Board of Education into seven local boards, it's the only comprehensive plan for much-needed change on the table.

As Democrats resist the Lingle proposal without a competing formula of their own, they're backed into the corner of defending an indefensible status quo that produces sub-par student achievement year after year.

Democrats can't credibly claim philosophical differences with the Lingle proposal, since House Democrats passed a similar plan just two years ago under a Democratic governor. Nothing has changed since then except the politics.

It's baffling why the Democrats don't simply do what Lingle wants and put the issue on the this year's ballot as a constitutional amendment for voters to decide.

Politically, they have nothing to lose and potentially much to gain. With the Department of Education and unions representing teachers and principals lined up against Lingle, she may well fail to win voter ratification. The political fallout would be on her.

If it passes, legislators would get credit for supporting the public interest over special interests and giving voters what they wanted.

Lingle wouldn't be able to bash Democrats on education in legislative races, and the more time she must devote to campaigning for her constitutional amendment, the less time she has to campaign against House and Senate Democrats.

Democratic legislators have the high ground on the war on drugs with their thoughtful $21 million plan to battle crystal methamphetamine with a responsible combination of treatment, prevention and tougher law enforcement.

The Democratic program reflects the desires of community groups that championed the issue, and Lingle looked politically petty when she dismissed their diligent work as throwing money at the problem.

If she didn't intend to direct significant resources to fighting Hawai'i's ice epidemic, why did she raise expectations by hyping Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona's statewide talk-story sessions and conferences on crystal meth?

The community wants reasonable money spent to battle the devastating effects of ice addiction, and Lingle can't win by standing in the way.

She can either work with the Democrats to mesh their competing ideas, or she can watch lawmakers use their veto-proof majority to shove their own popular plan down her throat with political impunity.

David Shapiro can be reached at dave@volcanicash.net