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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Hawaii needs leaders, but gets squabblers

By David Shapiro

It's frustrating that the people we need to be leaders in our worst economic crisis since statehood are acting more like big babies.

We're heading for a train wreck with Gov. Linda Lingle trying to force three unpaid furlough days a month on state employees, their unions trying to block her in court and Lingle countering with threats to lay off 2,500 workers, which is also being challenged in court.

Sorely needed political and labor negotiations appear stalled while the parties await the outcome of an injunction hearing tomorrow before Circuit Judge Karl Sakamoto.

With the Superferry fiasco fresh in our memories, the last thing we want is to leave it to courts to settle an incendiary political crisis that could end with our state financially crippled and unable to pay the bills.

The courts are ill-equipped to render decisions on taxing and spending that our paralyzed governor and Legislature were elected to make; judges and their support crew are state employees worried about their own pay, benefits and staffing and have a vested interest in the result.

The only way out of this without throwing our state government into the kind of chaos recently on display in California is a negotiated settlement rather than a protracted legal battle that would be a disgraceful way to mark the 50th anniversary of statehood.

So the question is simple: Do Lingle, the Legislature and the public unions care enough about Hawai'i to end the brinksmanship and do the one thing they haven't tried yet sit down and hammer out the cool-headed compromise the situation begs for?

Meeting rules once suggested by U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie would do nicely: Nobody leaves until a deal is done, and no one can throw a punch.

There are ways to split the differences if the parties have the will:

  • Cut in half the $700 million Lingle wants to save in labor costs, which would reduce the effective hit on state workers from 14 percent to 7 percent. Negotiate straight pay cuts and forget about furlough days that are impossible to efficiently administer without disrupting state operations.

    State employees can't reasonably expect to be spared any of the economic pain workers in the private sector are feeling, but 14 percent is too steep; it's outside the range of most private cutbacks, and when paired with increases in health insurance premiums, could reduce take-home pay by a crushing 20 percent.

  • Ask the Legislature to tap some $250 million from the rainy-day fund and the hurricane-relief fund, which long ago outlived its original purpose, to fill most of the budget gap created by scaling back pay cuts.

    Legislators have resisted draining these funds because they're afraid revenues will continue to slide next year and they want an easy way to respond without the unpleasantness of having to raise taxes or cut jobs in an election year.

    But it's cruel for lawmakers to cause public workers and taxpayers needless additional pain this year to spare themselves possible political pain next year depending on what may or may not happen with the economy.

  • If tapping the special funds still leaves a hole in the budget that can't be filled by other means, call the Legislature back to pass a temporary modest increase in the general excise tax that phases out when the economy recovers.

    It'll set a new low for Hawai'i if the people we depend on for leadership in hard times cynically let the train wreck happen and concern themselves with finger-pointing the blame onto someone else without even making an effort to meet halfway.