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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, January 1, 2006

COMMENTARY
Forward thinking needed to help state advance

By John Griffin

As 2006 approached, my mind turned to a pair of cliches "tipping point" and "hinge of history."

That may imply I see better things ahead for Hawai'i and the outside world. Indeed, you can make a case for silver linings, and I will do some of that later.

But nobody knows for sure, and you can also make a case for more 2005-like gloom or at least a very hazy outlook.

It's true that something is going to happen with Iraq, and yet I doubt we will be able to label that all good or bad, victory or defeat. Even as troops are withdrawn, that war will engage or haunt us for years ahead.

Although the national economy is doing better, the rich-poor gap gets worse. Growing problems include so-called aging issues, the increasing loss of private pensions (government workers may be next to lose them) and the need for a better healthcare system that covers everyone.

True, the 2006 elections will say something about the shifting national mood and feelings about the now-dominant Republicans. But they also may say as much about Democratic disarray. Never underestimate the Bush people in an election year.

Hawai'i remains an exotic echo, yet also a bit of a special case, in this bigger scene. I won't try to predict the outcome of the 2006 election here, but I would be surprised if we didn't end up with a new edition of the status quo Republican Gov. Linda Lingle and a Democratic Legislature.

In any event, the outlook for the Islands is more economic growth from more tourism and more military, and that's better than some of the alternatives. Yet we are in for battles about the need for affordable housing, the use of public land for private projects such as in Kaka'ako, and how to divide the state surplus between tax breaks and the serious needs in the school system and for social services.

Perhaps I'm too downbeat here at the end of a busy holiday season in a long life. (An otherwise kind reviewer saw an unintended note of gloom in my latest novel, which covers Hawai'i from statehood to the present.)

So let's look at the positive side:

Nationally, it says something that the debate of a couple years ago about whether the United States is building a new world empire has become an argument over when our troops leave Iraq and how to curtail the current version of an imperial presidency.

The weaknesses of the Bush administration, abroad and at home, are better understood and exposed, including by the media. The political pendulum may be swinging back a bit.

Democrats could surprise us and produce a program. Bush might even discover that global warming exists. Even as they predict more partisan battles, pundits are seeing signs of moderation.

Here in Hawai'i, there are increasing hopes and signs of economic diversity in fields ranging from biomedical sciences and high-tech ventures to new variations in diversified agriculture. Some are calling the Neighbor Islands an expanding frontier with UH-Hilo a special ("from the lo'i to the stars") bright spot.

Hawaiian issues are more part of the picture.

The better-appreciated University of Hawai'i is gearing up to celebrate its 100th anniversary in 2007-08 with a systemwide series of events that should stimulate interest in a better future.

Indeed, politics aside, you can find stimulation looking ahead.

Several Generation X groups (late 20s to early 40s), some of them locals back from Mainland experience, are getting involved in social action and community needs. We should be hearing more from groups like Kanu, Envision and Sustain Hawai'i, and the alumni of the Pacific Century Fellows.

This brings us to an important yet little-noted initiative of the Legislature this year. It could chart a course for Hawai'i to the middle of this century.

The basic idea is to review and update the Hawai'i State Plan and its many related functional plans.

That may bring yawns from those who feel the State Plan from the 1970s has been lacking in needed follow-up, benchmarks and clout. But one of the goals this time is to fill those gaps, as well as to provide fresh ideas and approaches.

To that end, a bipartisan 25-member Hawai'i 2050 Sustainability Task Force has started work with a staff and panel of resource advisers strong with University of Hawai'i experts. State Sen. Russell Kokubun, author of the act setting up the two-year process, is overall chairman.

The Big Island Democrat stresses that this is not a partisan effort and will involve months of outreach for community input and participation.

Still, the new process presents a challenge of sorts for Lingle, whose veto of the bill was overridden. Oversight of the task force and its ultimate plans was put under the state auditor because the Lingle administration was cool to the project.

In any event, this is a chance for Hawai'i to get beyond our preoccupation with immediate problems and short-term planning, important as they are, and to think seriously about getting to the kind of future our people prefer for their children. This could also fit with some of the UH anniversary planning.

Maybe tipping point won't be the term for 2006. Maybe we aren't living on that hinge of history. But a period of inspired moderation and more forward thinking might be more of what we need.

A half-century after our 1950s social revolution and our bipartisan drive for statehood, Hawai'i should get ready to dream big again.