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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 9, 2004

Legislature planted the seeds for success

The 2004 Legislature convened with broad agreement: The major issues of the year would be improving our public schools, dealing with the ice epidemic and improving our business climate.

While there is disagreement over the quality of the work performed, there's no question that lawmakers focused well on those topics. Unlike many other sessions, there was impressively little energy spent on side issues that distract lawmakers from their basic work.

Legislators kept their focus and their attention on what mattered most to the public.

That good effort was tainted, at least slightly, by several instances in which the majority Democrats in the Legislature appeared more interested in putting roadblocks in the way of Republican Gov. Linda Lingle than in the issues at hand.

This came up in a handful of appointments, in efforts to shift executive authority to the Legislature and in the speed-up process by which key bills were sent to the governor ahead of schedule.

This gave legislators ample time to override potential gubernatorial vetoes, which indeed they did.

Education at the top

Far and away the most important issue of the 2004 session was education. If it turns out that the Legislature did in fact begin the process of true reform of our massive public school system, then the year will long be remembered.

Lingle and many of her Republican colleagues in the Legislature contend that the "omnibus" education reform bill authored by Democrats is largely a sham.

We cannot agree, although Lingle is correct in noting that many of the changes proposed in the Democratic version will come more slowly than what she, or the public, might want.

The proof of the education bill will depend not so much on what the measure says as in what education officials, policy-makers and administrators do with it. They have been given the tools to produce major change in our school system; they must now have the courage to use those tools.

In this effort, the Lingle administration should swallow its disappointment that its proposal for a breakup of the statewide centralized school board will not make it to the ballot for voter consideration. It must do what it can, along with educators, unions and others, to see that the vision contained in the education bill becomes reality.

With sincere effort, Hawai'i could experience a sea change in education within a few years, with principals newly empowered to run their schools with control over major portions of their budget and educational policy. Stakeholders, including teachers, parents, students and community members, would have a substantive role in deciding how their own school operates.

Principals would be held accountable for school performance and would be given the training (and we hope pay) needed to achieve at this new executive level.

While money for schools would continue to come from a central source, it would be allocated according to a formula that recognizes the actual educational needs of students at individual schools.

If all that happens, it will be hard to argue that nothing has changed.

The ice debate

In the case of ice, a similar argument between Democrats and Republicans emerges. Lingle and the Republicans say the huge ice package written by Democrats does not go far enough, particularly in the area of law enforcement.

They bemoan the loss of streamlined wiretapping authority for law enforcement and the lack of a "walk and talk" and "knock and talk" authority so police could confront potential ice dealers.

It's true the war against ice requires both the "carrot" (diversion and treatment) as well as the "stick" (tough enforcement and stiff potential penalties).

In our view, the anti-drug bill that emerged at the end strikes a balance between these two sides. Again, the proof will be in implementation; it is time to get past arguments about who is tougher or more concerned about drug users and simply get to work.

Low key on economy

On our economy, lawmakers were relatively quiet. That is perhaps a reflection that after years in the doldrums, our economy is picking up nicely.

They did tweak the high-tech investment tax credit law (Act 221) to make it less open to abuse, but they could not find a way to open the books on the law so the public can see for itself whether it is getting its dollar's worth.

That's a fix that must be made next year.

Perhaps the strongest thing to be said about the Legislature and the business community is that there was not much in the way of new mandates, fees, taxes or regulations that tend to stall economic growth.

In all, it was a politically stormy but ultimately productive session. Now the real work of putting those ideas into practice begins.