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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Overall, legislators remained focused

By David Shapiro

It's popular to accuse the Legislature of becoming "distracted" during its three-month sessions and I've leveled the charge myself at times.

Sometimes there are legitimate concerns that lawmakers are wasting unreasonable time and emotional energy theirs and the public's on side issues of little consequence while the big pressing problems go unattended.

More often, a "distraction" is when legislators are working on someone else's issues instead of yours.

Seldom has there been a session like this year when one concern towers high above all others, the $1.2 billion state budget deficit and the dismal economy that caused it.

Leaders of the House and Senate vowed to minimize distractions this year and have mostly succeeded, considering that 76 legislators with vastly different political agendas can be herded only so much.

Not everybody is on the Finance and Ways and Means committees, and it makes little sense for the rest of the Legislature to sit around doing nothing until the money committees finish their work.

To keep the focus on the budget, legislative leaders shortened the session to reduce bill introductions and told members not to even think about bills with costs attached unless they had a way to pay for them.

Most of the bills that drew accusations of distraction have been reeled in.

A bill to ban foie gras from force-fed fowl died a quick death. A measure to ban shark-finning died but came back to life.

A battle to enforce the right to fly the American flag in planned communities came back from death in the House only to die again in the Senate.

Profound health care issues have been much in the news with the national reform debate and local stories about the state being unable to pay its medical bills and care being reduced for the neediest among us.

But from following the Legislature, you would have thought Hawai'i's most pressing public health concern was legalizing medical marijuana dispensaries, an effort that finally seems to be dead for the year.

Rep. Joey Manahan's agenda was quickly shot down when he tried to get legislative blessing for the cultural value of cockfighting, a resolution he admitted had no chance of passing and would only make people mad.

Matters that could have become major distractions from the budget were dealt with relatively swiftly.

The Senate passed a civil unions bill early in the session, but House leaders shelved it quickly after concluding the measure didn't have enough votes to override a possible veto by Gov. Linda Lingle.

Supporters of civil unions were bitterly disappointed and the House took a lot of criticism for avoiding a roll-call vote, but if the support wasn't there, better to clear out the issue early rather than let high emotions drag on all session only reach the same outcome.

Similarly, various gambling bills that lacked a veto-proof majority or in most cases even a simple majority died early. That's unless somebody pulls something out of a hat in conference committee.

It remains to be seen what mischief will come out of the gut-and-replace season or how lawmakers will resolve intense conflicts in plugging the deficit, but to this point they've mostly kept their promise to give the budget the bulk of their attention.