Legislature ignored governor's ideas to close budget gap
We serve as Gov. Linda Lingle's senior staff. In that capacity, our responsibilities include assisting the governor in her efforts to improve the quality of life for Hawai'i's residents. Part of our job includes working with the public, government agencies, elected officials and the news media to assess, from a statewide perspective, government actions, including those taken by our state Legislature.
Regrettably we must conclude that this year state legislators took two steps backward, leaving the residents of Hawai'i in poorer shape than before the session began. Let's assess why and what can be done about it.
At a time when families are struggling to make ends meet and hotels are facing half-empty occupancy levels, the Legislature voted to extract almost $521 million in new taxes from your pockets and out of the wallets of our visitors.
As Lingle aptly warned, these actions will likely postpone our economic recovery and add to unemployment levels in the coming months. What is particularly disappointing is the Legislature did not need to raise taxes if it had followed the governor's suggestions for closing the state's budget gap. Furthermore, it failed to pass legislation on significant programs that would stimulate job creation and establish the foundation for economic recovery.
In her budget and legislative proposals, the governor advocated labor savings over tax increases, major roadway infrastructure upgrades, a broadband communication initiative, improvements to our parks and recreational harbors, and the accelerated pursuit of renewable and clean energy through a variety of initiatives, including the banning of fossil fuel-generating power plants. Do some of these initiatives sound familiar? They should. They are the same types of infrastructure, energy and broadband proposals advocated by President Obama.
Recently, Hawai'i received the dubious distinction of having some of the worst roads in the United States. Everyone knows the Legislature raided our highway funds in the 1990s and the state Highway Division has been trying to make up for the deferred maintenance ever since.
This year, the Legislature had the opportunity to pass a comprehensive $4 billion multiyear plan to substantially improve our state highways, build new roads and save lives through important safety improvements. The Highway Modernization Plan met an unfortunate death in the 2009 Legislature and, worse yet, the budget passed by the House and Senate takes road maintenance funds out of the meager remaining dollars.
To operate successfully in the 21st century, we need inexpensive, reliable high-speed communications, often referred to as broadband communications. Here again, when the Legislature was given the opportunity to enact bold legislation to put Hawai'i at the forefront of the communications revolution, the Legislature failed to act. Oh yes, they say the issue can be considered next year. But each year we wait, Hawai'i becomes a murkier backwater on the international river of information flow — missing out on opportunities that depend upon good communications networks to survive.
What is particularly perplexing is the broadband initiative came out of a two-year legislative effort to restructure communications in our state that involved respected leaders in the academic, technical and regulatory arena. What kind of leadership do we really have in the House and Senate when they cannot even pass one of their own highest priorities? In fact, despite overwhelming majorities in both houses, the Democrat-controlled Legislature passed only 38 percent of its own proposals championed at the start of the 2009 session.
Kudos to the hard-working Republican members who, despite their small numbers, asked the tough questions, spoke out against tax increases and reminded us that democracy should be an ongoing discussion of ideas, not a heavy-handed flexing of political muscles from a lopsided number of Democrats.
We took backward steps in so many other areas, including the opportunity for a recreational renaissance to revitalize our public parks and recreational boat harbors. But despite these setbacks, the Lingle-Aiona administration will, in the words of the governor, "make lemonade from lemons," finding creative ways to stretch state dollars, partner with federal and private organizations, coordinate with volunteer groups, and advance our agenda that improves the quality of life for our residents.
And we remain optimistic that in 2010 the Democrat-controlled Legislature can reverse some of the damage it has done.
Next session, Democrats need to listen to the citizens they represent and recognize that the only way forward is to work with the governor to enact good legislation that will truly benefit the people of Hawai'i.
Otherwise let's suggest they just stay home; we cannot afford to take more steps backward.