Archive for November 2010

Is rational debate DOA?

November 16, 2010

Continuing our discussion last week on the need for a more civil and thoughtful national discourse, I was interested in some of the responses to preliminary ideas from the co-chairs of President Barack Obama’s deficit commission, which is scheduled to report next month.

Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson suggested, among other things, that we control Social Security costs by raising the retirement age or reducing benefits to those with high incomes.

A letter immediately went out from 100 “progressive” Democrats in the House, including our own Rep. Mazie Hirono, warning that any proposal that touched any hair on Social Security’s sweet little head would be dead on arrival.

I’m not a big fan of cutting Social Security; I just became eligible to apply for it after paying a good chunk of my income into the system all of my adult life.

But we have to face the fact that with the wave of baby boomers hitting retirement age, the system will soon be paying out more than it is taking in and we’ll need to do something to either increase the taxes coming in or reduce the funds flowing out.

The Bowles-Simpson remedies may not turn out to be the way to go, but declaring ideas offered after due consideration DOA without bothering to give them 10 seconds of thought is lazy and counterproductive.

That’s the problem with the tone and substance of our national debate — there’s a knee-jerk instinct on all sides is to declare anything they don’t like DOA, and as a result, nearly everything ends up DOA and little gets done.

The better path forward is to put all options on the table with open minds, hash them out in good faith and see what makes the most sense that the most people can live with.

The left’s denial of legitimate concerns about the federal deficit is as irrational as the right’s denial of global warming.

Kamehameha Schools asks slack, gives none

November 15, 2010

There was a dissonance in two stories about Kamehameha Schools over the weekend.

One in the Star-Advertiser by Rob Perez examined how Honolulu’s real property tax breaks for charitable institutions enables Kamehameha Schools, Hawai‘i’s  richest landowner, to pay only $300 a year in taxes on its 425-acre Kapalama campus that is valued at $157 million — the same tax a couple pays on a single parking space at their Waianae apartment.

A Kamehameha Schools spokesman said the relief is warranted in recognition of the value nonprofits provide to the public good.

Cut to the other story, about small farmers in Kamilonui Valley protesting an attempt by Kamehameha Schools to push their lease rents 28 times higher — from $15 per acre per month to $434.

Judy Nii, operator of a small nursery, is looking at a rent increase from $1,200 a year to $32,000, which threatens the survival of a business with a small profit margin.

“Basically, they’re asking us to work and give them whatever we make,” Nii said.

Kamehameha Schools was totally unsympathetic in a statement: “We appreciate that the Kamilonui lessees are facing a large rent increase, but we also hope the lessees appreciate that they’ve been paying extremely favorable rents for 38 years for land that has provided their livelihood and also their residence.”

I know there’s no direct connection between the two stories, but it leaves a bad taste when a multi-billion-dollar trust that expects an awful lot of slack on taxes it could easily afford refuses to give any slack at all to honest, hardworking farmers who can’t afford higher levies of the magnitude Kamehameha Schools is demanding.

The inevitable outcome if the hardball succeeds is that the farmers will be driven off the land and another piece of green Hawai‘i will be lost to development.

This is an example of public good worthy of enormous tax breaks?

flASHback alert

November 13, 2010

Today’s “flASHback” column in the Star-Advertiser: “New political guard prepares for its shift.”

Obama must transform the debate

November 12, 2010

Neil Abercrombie learned a lot from the 2008 Barack Obama presidential campaign in fashioning his Hawai‘i gubernatorial campaign theme of hope and change.

Now there’s something Obama could learn from the Abercrombie campaign as he deals with the Republican resurgence in Congress and prepares to run for a second term in two years.

Abercrombie won by surprisingly wide margins against Mufi Hannemann in the primary and James “Duke” Aiona in the general election by claiming the high road from the start of the campaign and never wavering from the course.

When an opponent took a below-the-belt shot at him, Abercrombie would respond by lecturing, “This is not how a governor acts.” He got in plenty of his own shots, of course, but he drew a line and never sank below it.

Voters who were turned off by the negativity that inundated the airwaves this election season responded to his message.

Obama could benefit politically and do the country a favor by making a similar aggressive claim to the high road.

With the standoff between Obama and the Republicans, there’s not going to be a lot of policy transformation in the next two years. But he could do something about transforming the poisonous political tone of polarization, demonization and name-calling by making civility, decency and common respect the issue.

To this point, the president has mostly shrugged it off as the opposition has rudely shouted him down, refused him the respect traditionally given the presidency and spread lies about his birth and religious beliefs.

Maybe it’s time for him to take to the presidential bully pulpit with some stern lectures about how this isn’t the way a civil society acts.

There are partisans Obama will never reach, but he might be surprised by the response of the more reasonably minded who are tired of the toxic politics.

It’s just not a sustainable future for our country to have our people divided in half with each side refusing to cede any legitimacy to the other.

R.I.P. Marcia Reynolds

November 11, 2010

I was saddened to hear of the passing of my friend and former colleague from the Big Island.

Marcia Reynolds arrived in Hilo from Ohio in the early 1970s to work as a reporter for the Hawaii Tribune-Herald, where she mostly covered county government and politics.

I manned the Star-Bulletin Big Island bureau and always found her to be a tough competitor during the day, but amiable company after hours.

She was an old-fashioned, hardass reporter who took no prisoners in her coverage, but she seldom got complaints that stuck because of her fairness and accuracy. Many of the newsmakers she covered became lifelong friends.

She left reporting to become a trusted aide to Mayor Stephen Yamashiro and later went into public relations and the travel business.

Marcia was a driving force behind the Big Island Press Club’s popular gridiron show, The Imu, as its director for many years and was manager and a hell of a pitcher on our softball team.

She left a lasting mark during her four decades in Hilo and will be missed by a wide circle of friends.

Give DOE some room to manage

November 10, 2010

I feel terrible for communities faced with losing public schools in the face of shrinking enrollment.

But I also feel for Department of Education officials who face endless battles to achieve the necessary efficiencies to improve public education in tight budget times.

Every dollar in the DOE budget has a constituency, and any effort to re-prioritize faces stiff resistance, draining time and energy that could be better used finding ways to enhance learning in the classroom.

The latest battleground is Kalihi, where the DOE is proposing to close Puuhale and Kalihi elementary schools, where enrollment has declined, and transfer students to nearby Kalihi Kai, Kalihi Uka and Kaewai, which have plenty of empty classroom space to accommodate more students.

The DOE says the consolidations will save more than $1.5 million a year, and a Board of Education committee is recommending public hearings to move the plan forward.

But it’s only the beginning of a long and likely bitter fight similar to those involving other school closings.

Shutting schools can be painful for communities, and the DOE should have to fully justify its proposals to the public.

But at the same time, the public has to recognize budget realities and demographic shifts. It’s simply not fair to keep accusing DOE of failing to make the most efficient use of its funding — and then constantly handcuff administrators in managing their resources.

If we hire managers to do a job, it’s only reasonable to give them a measure of latitude and benefit of the doubt.

The road doesn’t get easier for the Hawai‘i GOP

November 9, 2010

Hawai‘i  Republicans need to do some careful thinking about their path forward after their devastating losses in the general election.

Failing to share in a strong GOP showing across the country, local Republicans lost the governor’s office they’d held for eight years, lost their best chance at winning a congressional seat in 20 years and scored only a minimal gain in the Legislature despite considerable effort.

Many in the party are disheartened that during eight years of the Lingle administration, with control of state patronage and the leverage it provides to groom future leaders, the party has few fresh marketable candidates.

The GOP caucus in the state House is down to eight from 19 the year before Linda Lingle was elected, and its numbers in the Senate have dropped from a high of five during the Lingle years to one.

The only potential Republican candidates with any heft are Lingle and the three who lost the big races this year — James “Duke” Aiona, Lynn Finnegan and Charles Djou.

Lingle will almost certainly run for U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka’s seat in 2012 with heavy support from the national GOP as it fights to take control of the Senate, but there’s no clear way back in for Aiona, Finnegan and Djou if they have interest in trying again.

There were only a handful of legislative races where Republicans came close enough to have reasonable hope of making it over the top against entrenched Democratic incumbents next time.

The barriers are philosophical as much as practical; the GOP is unlikely to gain ground unless the local party settles sharp internal divisions over whether it should turn more moderate or conservative, and how cozy the party should get with religious groups.

Will the new state Senate stand for something?

November 8, 2010

I like what I’ve seen so far of the state Senate’s new leadership in the wake of former President Colleen Hanabusa’s departure for Congress.

The two guys most prominently out front — President Shan Tsutsui, 39, of Maui, and Ways and Means Chairman David Ige, 53, of Aiea-Pearl City, are smart, fresh and earnest leaders who have shown good evidence of social conscience.

Both have earned reputations as work horses in the Senate, as opposed to show ponies who hog the spotlight while others do the heavy lifting.

Brickwood Galuteria as majority leader, Les Ihara Jr. as floor leader, Ron Kouchi as caucus leader and Suzanne Chun Oakland and Will Espero as majority whips all are relatively new to leadership. I look forward to seeing what they can do about making the Senate stand for something.

Of course, some longtime power brokers who helped shape the new coalition will still hold a lot of sway behind the scenes — primarily Sens. Donna Mercado Kim and Rosalyn Baker.

Kim relinquished the Ways and Means chair, but she returns as vice president and will chair a new panel, Investigations and Tourism, that enables her to indulge her two passions — playing “gotcha” with the administration, as former Gov. Ben Cayetano put it, and terrorizing tourism marketers.

One of my correspondents who follows the Legislature closely described the mission of the new Kim committee thusly: “I’m going to get you, my pretties, and your little dog, too. Bwhahahaha!!!” Sounds about right.

A committee assignment that raised eyebrows was Sen. Clayton Hee’s return as Judiciary chairman after he wreaked so much havoc in two previous incarnations that he had to be replaced — once by voters and once by leadership. But give Hee credit for resiliency and a knack for gravitating to the right place when the 13 votes are counted.

Stalwarts of the old Hanabusa faction such as Sens. Brian Taniguchi and Dwight Takamine were frozen out. I’m sure Hanabusa will enjoy Washington winters more than she would have liked Siberia.

flASHback alert

November 6, 2010

Today’s “flASHback” column in the Star-Advertiser: “With elections over, it’s now time for some real silliness.”

O‘ahu’s rash of incumbents

November 4, 2010

I was at a fast-food drive-through for lunch and the car in front of me had a bumper sticker that said, “Voting for an incumbent is like voting for an allergy.”

I must admit to sharing the sentiment at times of frustration with the fumbling of local government, and it made me wonder why O‘ahu voters so seldom hold incumbent elected officials to account.

I came of voting age on the Big Island, where the electorate once threw out six of the nine sitting council members — including the major power players — in one fell swoop.

Neighbor island voters still aren’t bashful about cleaning house. This year, the Big Island voted out three council members; Maui gave the boot to its mayor, two council members and a legislator; and Kaua‘i dumped its council chairman and a legislator.

On O‘ahu, I can’t think of a single incumbent who lost unless you count Mayor Kirk Caldwell and U.S. Rep. Charles Djou, who were only warming the seats.

Why the difference? Are neighbor islanders just more cantankerous? Do voters in the smaller communities pay more attention and know the candidates better? Is it that elected officials on the neighbor islands get more intense scrutiny from the local media than in O‘ahu’s metropolitan setting?

Whatever it is, we could use more of their healthy political skepticism in the big city.


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