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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 6, 2006

Now's the time to invest in state's future

By Brian Schatz

For decades, we've been fed a slogan about the role of government in our lives that many of us have come to believe "government is the problem." Charmed by this simplistic notion, we have stood by as social programs for America's most needy get dismantled and downsized.

Meanwhile, the national debt is at an all-time high due to tax cuts aimed at the Republican base and unprecedented business subsidies, all at a time when the nation is at war and recovering from natural disasters.

Ironically, Congress recently made it more difficult for everyday people to declare bankruptcy while it runs government like a college student with his first credit card.

This is what happens when we govern one election cycle at a time. History will forget the legions of politicians who based their success on the number of people they could please. Rather, we politicians should be judged on how we helped make society better for all.

To accomplish anything of substance, we need fiscal responsibility, we need social responsibility and we need to get off the path of least resistance.

Now, for the first time in more than a decade, the state's revenues exceed its expenses by several hundred million dollars. As in previous boom cycles, Hawai'i has benefited from a fortunate confluence of events, including low interest rates, hot tourism and extraordinary federal defense spending.

Because political spin tells us that "government is the problem," our reflex response is to give people a tax rebate. But as we have sadly learned over the last few years, an individual taxpayer can't stop the insurgents in Iraq. He can't rescue people stranded in New Orleans, or keep our harbors safe, or clean up the environment, or prepare for a flu pandemic, or educate all the children enrolled in our public schools.

But responsible government can and must do these things.

So while Hawai'i entertains the thought of a tax surplus giveaway to put a few extra bucks in as many pockets as possible, we are squandering an opportunity to smartly strive toward more noble goals.

If we want to get serious about running the state government more like a business, we need to follow these simple guidelines:

  • Avoid adding to the base budget with government programs and positions that need to be painstakingly eliminated (usually by some other administration) when times are bad.

  • Make long-neglected one-time expenditures that will go a long way, such as paying down our Employee Retirement System unfunded liability, or fixing school infrastructure.

  • Invest in the development of sustainable systems, such as programs that encourage economic self-sufficiency, and services that are integrated with the private sector.

  • Have the fiscal discipline, courage and leadership to stave off political horse-trading and pork.

    Let's create a sustainable system whereby every child in Hawai'i has health insurance. Let's ensure every child has access to a preschool education. Let's reform the welfare system with a state Earned Income Tax Credit and other asset-based approaches so that families can escape cycles of poverty for good. Let's create a world-class Ala Wai Boat Harbor.

    Let's fully implement Act 51 to reform public schools. Let's develop and implement a comprehensive homeland security system for Hawai'i against all natural and man-made threats. Let's do one or two things, and do them well.

    Sound unrealistic? It's not.

    With more than $500 million in surplus funds, one or two of these items are not only achievable, they are imperative. Of course we can't do all of them, but can we really afford to come out of this surplus having accomplished none of them?

    Small increases for every state department will eliminate the surplus but won't achieve any of these things. We have to prioritize.

    Hawai'i's people want more than just money in their pockets. We want to have pride in the legacy we leave to future generations. We have an opportunity to change our history for the better, but we must do one or two things, and do them well.

    Brian Schatz is a state representative entering his eighth legislative session. The Democrat represents Makiki, Tantalus and Mo'ili'ili.