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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, February 18, 2009

From inspired debate to invidious greed

By David Shapiro

The past week showed us the Hawai'i Legislature at its best and its worst.

The best was the principled debate in the House over civil unions for same-sex couples.

The worst was the sight of lawmakers greedily clinging to their 36 percent pay raises this year while constituents face pay freezes or worse as the economy crumbles and the state's budget deficit grows.

Whatever your views on same-sex unions, you have to credit House members for high-minded discussion in approving by a vote of 33-17 a bill to give gay and lesbian couples similar legal rights in Hawai'i as married couples.

Civil unions are a fair attempt to equalize legal rights while averting the emotional issue of same-sex marriage that voters rejected 2-to-1 in a 1998 constitutional amendment that defined marriage as between one man and one woman.

Unlike the last time, when lawmakers dithered for years and obscured the issue, this time the House moved quickly and members stood up and honestly said what they believed despite political risks.

House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro said, "There will be a day when acceptance, tolerance, equity and justice are not just words, but they will be truly embodied by our actions. So let that day come closer. And let that day be today."

Minority Leader Lynn Finnegan, whose late sister was gay, also spoke from the heart in opposing the bill.

"I know that she can hear me today, and the last thing that I would want for her to feel in any way, shape or form is that I didn't love her for who she was," Finnegan said. "I can take this vote in good conscience because I know that my sister would love me no matter what I would do."

As the bill moves to the Senate, there's still a lot of discussion to be had on whether this is the right thing to do and the right time to do it, but the House showed it's capable of operating on a high plane.

Not so on legislative pay raises, where there's a disconnect between the sacrifices lawmakers are asking of others to balance the budget and those they're willing to make themselves.

House Speaker Calvin Say lectured unionized public employees that the budget crisis is real and everybody has to share the pain: "If we can all share in a little of the pain, we can come out ahead."

Then his Labor Committee passed a two-year pay freeze for legislators, administrators and judges conveniently timed to allow lawmakers to collect the 36 percent pay raise they get this year while giving up the 3.5 percent they get in future years.

That's not a meaningful sharing of pain, and nothing lawmakers do to cut costs will have credibility if they accept outsized pay raises while their constituents face pay freezes if they're lucky and pay cuts, reduction of hours and layoffs if they're not.

Legalistic excuses that legislators are just taking what the Salary Commission gave them ignores that the panel made its recommendations before the economy crashed and that four of the seven commissioners are appointed by the speaker of the House and the president of the Senate.

They claim they're getting part-time pay for essentially full-time jobs, but don't give up their right to hold often lucrative outside jobs in exchange for big pay raises.

It reflects a feeling of entitlement to serve themselves first while the rest of the community sacrifices, and it leaves the same sour taste as corporate executives paying themselves big salaries and bonuses while their companies tank.

Reach David Shapiro at (Unknown address).

David Shapiro, a veteran Hawai'i journalist, can be reached by e-mail at dave@volcanicash.net. His columns are archived at www.volcanicash.net. Read his daily blog, Volcanic Ash, at http://volcanicash.honadvblogs.com.