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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 30, 2010

A good idea hampered by terrible timing

Lawmakers yesterday revived a pilot program to test a more efficient way of handling welfare eligibility inquiries, overriding the governor's veto.

It's a weak, but unfortunately inevitable compromise. The polarization between the administration and the Legislature, and Gov. Linda Lingle's move to lay off 228 state workers in the middle of the session, eliminated the option of a more carefully crafted solution.

The administration had come to the rational conclusion that its public-assistance delivery system was antiquated. It advocated a modernized, Web-based public interface to replace 31 of its eligibility offices. This move would ultimately save money and achieve greater efficiency.

But it also would have cost a lot of state jobs.

This sounded the alarm bell among unions, leaving many in the Legislature unwilling to take such a disruptive plunge into a new system before the inevitable bugs are worked out.

The result was Senate Bill 2650, which rejects Human Services Director Lillian Koller's plan and replaces it with a pilot project for O'ahu.

It creates a call center and online system that is supposed to handle more clients more efficiently, but leaves intact the labor-intensive service centers on the Neighbor Islands.

The governor vetoed the bill. She says running only the pilot program cheats Neighbor Island residents out of faster and better service.

Despite a few misgivings about how Koller's plan would be implemented, we had tentatively supported it.

We are troubled by the Legislature's micromanagement of administrative functions; mandating headcounts, locations and practices of state agencies is a bad idea.

But this politically charged election year was probably the wrong time to press ahead with such a radical overhaul of such a sensitive social services operation. The streamlining idea was a good one but the timing was terrible.

Legislators must believe there is a germ of a good idea in this, too, or they wouldn't have allowed the O'ahu pilot program to move forward.

So we hope it's such a success that the next governor can move toward statewide implementation, with the full backing of the Legislature.