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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Will Lingle, Legislature hit gridlock again?

By David Shapiro

Hope abounds that Gov. Linda Lingle and the Legislature will make lasting progress this year on the buzz issues of affordable housing, school repairs, gas prices and tax relief.

That can happen only if our leaders avoid senseless mistakes they made in a sorry performance two years ago on another top concern the war on "ice."

Driven by community protests about the devastating effects of crystal methamphetamine addiction, Lingle and lawmakers convened separate drug summits before the 2004 Legislature that produced competing plans.

Their obsessive political rivalry smothered any chance of cooperative problem-solving, resulting in feeble half-measures that have done little to abate an ice epidemic that destroys families, triggers violence and property crime, and packs our prisons.

Most alarming is the way ice has fallen off the radar as politicians move on to hot new issues; fighting drug abuse is barely mentioned in talks about how to spend the state's $574 million budget surplus.

It illustrates a form of political attention deficit disorder that leaves the work of our local government forever unfinished and condemns us to struggling year after year with the same ominous threats to our quality of life.

The ice fiasco should worry citizens looking for relief this year on housing, energy, taxes and schools because Lingle and the Legislature appear to be on the same road to failure.

They're busily throwing out competing proposals at press conferences without bothering to even try to talk to one another first.

This suggests the priority is pointing up their differences with an eye toward the fall elections, rather than working in good faith to resolve conflicts for the benefit of the community.

Without some commitment to collaborate, the only possible outcome is gridlock as the Legislature's power to set policy is negated by the governor's power to carry out that policy or not.

Finger-pointing about who started the finger-pointing contributes nothing to fixing Hawai'i's pressing problems or elevating our elections.

The ice impasse is especially frustrating because there's broad agreement on the three key elements of a sound drug policy: education to prevent addiction, treatment for those already addicted and tough law enforcement to disrupt the supply of illegal intoxicants.

The potentially good efforts of 2004 fell apart when Lingle emphasized law enforcement, lawmakers emphasized treatment and the two sides stubbornly refused to recognize the value of both.

After the Legislature all but ignored Lingle's law enforcement concerns, she retaliated by delaying release of nearly $15 million they authorized for treatment and other social programs.

The pointless stalemate didn't stop candidates of both parties from shamelessly going into the 2004 legislative elections trumpeting their measures to "solve" the ice problem.

Since then, annual deaths from crystal methamphetamine on O'ahu have increased by 27 percent and set new records for fatalities two years in a row.

Arrests related to ice on O'ahu were on track to increase last year for the fourth straight year, and the number of people entering treatment for ice addiction has increased every year since 1998.

Clearly, the fumbling efforts of 2004 failed to diminish either the pervasiveness of ice in our community or its insidious social and economic costs.

This continuing crisis cries for a revisit by the governor and Legislature this year to show they can move past partisan posturing and finally bring all available weapons into play in the battle against crystal meth.

If they can't prove themselves capable of honest bargaining and tough follow-through on a lingering issue that has so much room for agreement, how can we hope they'll take effective action on the difficult matters that top this year's agenda?

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net.