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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 22, 2010

Tough year tests resolve to hit priorities

The Legislature has begun what has to be its toughest session ever and the fact that this is also an election year may, for once, serve voters who still hope for responsible government.

That's because there is not even a spare penny to waste in the budget for the second year running and lawmakers are legally bound to pass a balanced budget. The public can hold them accountable almost immediately, when ballots are cast this fall, while the memory of the session is still fresh.

The opening statement by state Senate President Colleen Hanabusa did offer the right expression of urgency: "Now is the time to put aside differences in party and personal agendas and instead focus on what is truly best for our state and the people we represent," she said. "Now is the time to prove that we have our priorities in order."

It would help for leadership in both houses to make those priorities clear. Often one gauges priorities by the bills assembled and endorsed by the majority, but given the lack of funding, officials have said there will be no agreed-upon package.

Fair enough. But there should be at least a public statement of what priorities will guide the state's preferences on public programs and services.

State Sen. Gary Hooser, Senate majority leader, said his general sense is that improving public education, primarily through allotting money to eliminate furlough Fridays, gets top ranking among members of his caucus. Human services to help those most at risk in the current economic malaise seem to rise to second place in discussions.

It would be hard to dispute those, but the decisions will get tough with all the competing interests vying for the same buck.

It's encouraging to hear at least Hanabusa's pledge to work collaboratively within the legislative chambers and with the executive branch. All ideas for helping the state power through difficult times partnerships backed by businesses, for example, or incentives to encourage construction and economic development need to be heard.

Legislative sessions during kinder years are occasions when the public makes its case for funding, when lobbyists see if they can cajole a bit of taxpayer candy from the candy jar.

Lawmakers say they can't afford to be the candy purveyor this year. Nobody questions that. In the end, they'll have a few months to explain how well they've hewn to their stated values before the voters decide whether to hire them back.