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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Same old government stifles 'New Beginning'

By David Shapiro

As Gov. Linda Lingle introduced her Cabinet during her final State of the State speech, she said they've "truly brought about the new beginning we envisioned for our state."

Have they? That's the central question in assessing Lingle's legacy as Hawai'i's first Republican governor in 40 years.

The "New Beginning" Lingle promised in 2002 had three core pledges revitalizing Hawai'i's economy, fixing our public schools and restoring honesty and effective management to state government.

Her people now turn questions about her accomplishments to issues like robotics, animal quarantine and child pornography, but the three big promises from 2002 are what she'll ultimately be judged on.

Economy. Lingle came into office on a wave of public frustration over our last recession during the Cayetano administration.

Things turned quickly Democrats argued it was because a global economic surge spurred a local construction boom but Lingle claimed credit and rode the good times to easy re-election in 2006.

In her State of the State that year, when she was sitting on a $700 million budget surplus, she famously said Hawai'i could "have it all."

Four years later, we're suffering another recession far worse than 2002 and battling a budget deficit that still stands at $1.2 billion after a year of deep cuts, furloughs and layoffs.

Lingle can't be blamed for the global economic collapse, but after taking credit for the earlier recovery, neither can she expect a pass from the state's fumbling management of the downturn in which there's been more distracting drama than leadership and purpose.

In the end, Lingle will likely leave the state's economy in no better shape than she found it and with no clear path to recovery.

Education. Lingle came out swinging with a proposal in her first year to break up Hawai'i's statewide public school system into seven local school boards.

Democrats in the Legislature rejected the idea and instead passed their own "Reinventing Education Act" that Lingle rightly described as "false reform."

Then she all but disappeared for five years on an issue she'd made a central campaign promise, doing little to hold lawmakers' feet to the fire when their poorly implemented program of weighted student spending, empowered principals and school/community councils brought minimal progress.

After the "furlough Fridays" she signed off on caused a public furor, Lingle returned to the issue this year with a new plan to make the schools superintendent a member of the governor's Cabinet, but it's too late.

Lawmakers will appropriately want to have any discussion about restructuring the public schools with the next governor who would oversee the changes.

As with the economy, Lingle leaves the school system in no better shape than she found it.

Honesty/Efficiency. Lingle's chief of staff resigned in a sordid scandal and ethical concerns were raised about the funding of her foreign travels.

The administration's handling of the Superferry was a historic fiasco and there have been smaller missteps involving confusion in the swine flu program, millions of dollars tied up in lapsed airport projects and a sudden jump in the deficit from the miscounting of $44 million in state funds.

Both the state auditor and Honolulu prosecutor found widespread incompetence in the Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism.

This isn't to say the Lingle administration has been especially dishonest or inept, but they'll find it difficult to credibly argue that they've raised the bar from previous administrations.

Lingle blames many of her frustrations on the Legislature, where Democrats have a veto-proof majority, but she knew she'd face a Democratic Legislature when she promised her new beginning and her failure to move lawmakers will be part of the equation in assessing her legacy.