Key issues Legislature must face this year
In an election year, it is inevitable that folks at the state Capitol will be focused on more than the work at hand.
The 2006 legislative session will be overshadowed by thoughts of the upcoming election and how to seize the early advantage. But in the long run, re-election hopes rest inevitably on the good they do for the taxpayers and voters of this state.
Toward that end, here is our annual look at some of the issues we believe should be front and center as the Legislature goes to work later this month.
First, the Legislature must decide what to do with a tax surplus that is running close to $600 million. An informal sounding of public opinion suggests most people would be willing to give up a tax rebate or refund if they felt the money was spent wisely and on focused needs.
The most common need cited our public school system. Yes, the money might be well-used to pump up the salaries of those who teach and care for our children. But that generates an ongoing expense.
It would be better to commit most of the surplus (other than that which should be reserved for a rainy-day fund) to the physical needs of our schools. Our classrooms need painting, electrical upgrades, air-conditioning, computers and yes, even books.
What better way to use this windfall than to pay for a massive upgrade to the educational physical plant? This translates into a virtual "Marshall Plan" to rebuild our public schools and bring them physically into the 21st century.
It's been argued that the school system, indeed the state as a whole, does not have the capacity to absorb a crash spending program of this magnitude.
There may be a need for changes in union work rules and procurement standards, but if the will is there, the work can and should get done.
CIVIL DEFENSE, HOUSING
There also is a need for some of the surplus to go to immediate upgrades to our civil defense infrastructure, particularly to upgrade and equip emergency shelters.
Next on the list is housing, particularly affordable housing for those shut out of the market and those who struggle to find a place to rent. An inflated housing market is driving many Islanders into homelessness or out of the state. This is intolerable.
Lawmakers and Gov. Lingle recognized this looming problem last year and made some early efforts to deal with the situation. The governor's proposal for another $20 million to deal with the acute problems of homelessness also is welcome.
But there is much more that can be done.
The first step is to rethink the allocation of the new conveyance tax passed last year. Some of the income goes toward purchase of so-called "legacy lands" and another chunk goes to support the affordable-housing fund. But lawmakers kept a portion of the new tax for the general fund, in effect raising general taxes in the face of a huge surplus.
The money should be spent on protecting legacy lands and supporting affordable housing, period.
Next comes job training and workforce development. A booming economy is of little comfort if there is a shortage of trained and willing workers to take advantage of it.
Training workers for the jobs that are on the horizon in fields of life sciences, high-tech military support, construction and the like is an investment we should make today.
This means focused support for our community and technical colleges as well as continued backing for the cutting-edge work the University of Hawai'i is doing in bio-sciences, ocean engineering, astronomy and the like.
If the Legislature successfully dealt with these several issues alone, it would be considered a success.
But there are a few other areas where it is time for lawmakers to recognize that short-term political gain must be set aside for the long-term social health of the state. These include long-term care for the elderly and universal preschool education.
Both programs are expensive and difficult. Putting money and energy into either of these worthy goals is unlikely to pay off politically over the time horizon most politicians see.
Money and energy devoted into universal preschool education today will pay off in terms of academic achievement and success tomorrow.
As for long-term care, this is a cost Hawai'i will have to bear one way or another. The only question is whether we will wait until it becomes a horrendously expensive emergency or whether we begin planning (and, yes, spending, today).
There is obviously much more the Legislature can, and will, do during its 2006 session. But if it successfully tackles the issues outlined above, no one need worry about re-election prospects come fall.