Archive for December 2010

flASHback alert

December 11, 2010

Today’s “flASHback” column in the Star-Advertiser: “A new era in government arrives with unspoken costs.”

Democrats go mindless on taxes

December 9, 2010

While local Democrats celebrate their near sweep in the recent election, their counterparts in Washington are proving the old Will Rogers line: “I am not a member of any organized political party. I am a Democrat.”

Congressional Democrats have made jokes of themselves by bashing their own president for cutting a necessary deal with Republicans to preserve tax cuts for the middle class and secure benefits for the unemployed in exchange for also temporarily extending tax cuts for the wealthy.

They get their butts kicked in the election and they respond by fighting with each other instead of the other side.

We should remember that President Barack Obama had to negotiate a compromise with Republicans only because Democratic lawmakers, who control both houses, couldn’t deliver the votes to support the bill they and Obama wanted to end the tax cuts for the wealthy.

If you don’t have the votes for the deal you want, you negotiate the best deal you can get, and that’s what Obama did. If the Democrats’ prospects improve, they can fight it again when the tax cuts expire in two years — and between now and then, they can do all the railing they want to hold Republicans accountable for pandering to the rich.

What’s the point of a protracted fight the Democrats can’t currently win that only sticks it to middle-class taxpayers and the unemployed? If the Democrats don’t have the votes now, winning the fight only diminishes come January when the GOP takes over the House and picks up seats in the Senate.

Since when is it weakness to pursue responsible compromise when you lack the votes to have it all your own way?

Our own Democratic Sens. Daniel Inouye and Daniel Akaka had it right when they said they’ll will support Obama’s compromise to help working families despite their strong reservations about extending tax cuts for the wealthy, which Inouye said will cause him to  “hold my nose.”

Akaka said, “Working families in Hawai‘i need our help to put food on the table. They will spend the money locally and help our economy. I simply cannot allow these middle-class tax cuts to expire or abandon the unemployed during these tough times.”


R.I.P. Sam King

December 8, 2010

The world always seems emptier when somebody dies, but it seemed even more so with news of the passing of Senior U.S. District Judge Samuel Pailthorpe King at 94.

He was one of the truly great ones among us, even as he deflected attention from himself with instinctual modesty and self-deprecating humor.

I first met King when he was the Republican candidate for governor against John A. Burns in 1970, but I didn’t really get to know him until we worked together on the “Broken Trust” essay on the Bishop Estate that ran in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin in 1997 and was later expanded into a book by King and co-author Randall Roth in 2006.

I wrote the introduction for the book, and though my part was a only a small piece of the big effort, it was a considerable challenge for me.

Most of the writing I’ve done is the kind that lines bird cages at the end of the day, and I knew the introduction to the most important book on one of the most important stories since Hawai‘i became a state would have to stand up for a long time.

It was a precious gift to have the counsel of a man who had himself stood up for a very long time as a leading force for good in the state’s public life.

King, Roth and I passed the introduction back and forth dozens of times as the book evolved.

The judge was nearing 90 at the time, but his questions were always incisive, a misstated fact or a nuance never got past him and he caught me in more grammatical errors than any editor I ever had. It led me to look at some of his own writings, which sparkled with clarity.

In meetings in his chambers at the federal court, where he heard cases to the end, I found him to be one of the smartest and most learned people I’ve known. The walls were covered with many books on a great variety of subjects — more than you’d expect anybody to be able to read even if he lived to be 94.

At breakfast meetings at a waffle place he liked on Kapiolani, King was full of insights on the latest events in Hawai‘i and the world, and he was often downright funny in sizing things up.

One of my favorite memories of King was a lunch interview he, Roth and I did with former governor Ben Cayetano for the book. It was a great chance to just sit back and listen as King, the son of a territorial governor, and Cayetano started talking about the oddities of life in Washington Place.

It took guts for him to speak out on the Bishop Estate as a sitting judge, but he was passionate about the welfare of Hawaiian beneficiaries and considered it his duty.

King fought hard for what he believed in, but he was an honorable gentleman — the kind we need more of in today’s toxic political environment— who always fought fair.

I was sitting next to him in a panel discussion on the Bishop Estate when Henry Peters, one of the trustees that “Broken Trust” helped to bring down, made a surprise appearance in the audience and launched into a long-winded defense of his actions.

King had more class than to deny the man his say, but I could hear his soft mutterings to himself as he countered every claim Peters made in a line of private rebuttal that was simply brilliant in its insight and logic.

As was the case throughout the Bishop Estate controversy, Peters had no idea of the extent to which he was being sliced and diced by a greater mind with a moral compass that was true.

It would be a major step toward a better Hawai‘i if we all took a moment to reflect on how to each be a little more like Sam King.

Lingle’s failed legacy

December 7, 2010

I’ve been asked why I didn’t join in analyzing the legacy of outgoing Gov. Linda Lingle. In all honesty, I don’t think she’s left one that will be judged of much significance.

I hate to be uncharitable, but 25 years from now, I doubt that the Republican Lingle’s eight-year break from Democratic rule will be remembered much more than Eileen Anderson’s brief stint as Honolulu mayor between Frank Fasi’s two extended terms.

Lingle has taken much criticism for not extending coattails to other local Republicans, saying it wasn’t her job to get GOP lawmakers elected.

The number of Republicans in the state House fell from 19 to seven and in the Senate from five to one while Lingle was busy padding her own nest in national GOP politics by spending more time than any other governor from either party out of state on the presidential campaign trail.

Lingle didn’t understand — or didn’t care — that her only chance of shaping state policy and changing Hawai‘i’s political culture was to break the Democratic super-majority in the Legislature in order to force her bills to the floor and have her vetoes sustained. Without that leverage, the Democrats could, and did, walk over her at will.

You don’t have to be a Republican to see the value of a healthy political balance.

I thought one of the most astute assessments of Lingle’s failed legacy was made by former Democratic Gov. John Waihee in a Star-Advertiser story by Derrick DePledge:

Waihee said Lingle’s biggest missed opportunity was the chance to lay the groundwork for a true two-party system. Despite Lingle’s historic victory in 2002 and her sweep to re-election in 2006, Republicans have lost seats in the Legislature and appear weaker as a party than before she was elected.

Waihee said Lingle — a moderate on social issues, more conservative on fiscal policy — could have helped create a Hawaii Republican brand. Instead, he said, she gravitated toward the kind of mainland conservatism that has proved unpopular in the islands and “ended up, at the end of her term, palling around with (former Alaska Gov. Sarah) Palin.”

“She really didn’t define what a Hawaii Republican would be like,” he said. “And, actually, I think that’s a loss for the entire state. She started off very committed to building a two-party system, but she ended up with it being more one-party than ever.”

Abercrombie awaits his economic hand

December 6, 2010

A lot of factors go into judging how well our governors perform, but often it comes down to what the economy does during their terms — and that can be determined far from our shores.

John Waihee became enormously popular during his first term when Hawai‘i’s economy soared on Japanese investment, and he rode record budget surpluses to easy re-election.

But by the end of his second term, the first Gulf War sunk the economy, the surplus was gone and Waihee left office with dismal approval ratings.

Poor Ben Cayetano’s two terms were book-ended by the first Gulf War and 9/11, leaving him to constantly bail water politically and policy-wise as he never had a taste of a booming economy to build a legacy on.

Linda Lingle essentially repeated the Waihee cycle, coming in on a construction-fueled boom that actually started during the end of the Cayetano years. The return of big surpluses made her so popular that no major Democrat would try to deny her a second term.

But she caught the Great Recession in her final years and is leaving with some of the lowest approval ratings of her eight years.

It’s impossible to predict where the economy will go as Neil Abercrombie starts out. Tourism is making a comeback, but other areas of the economy haven’t caught up, people are still hurting, federal stimulus is ending and state finances are still tight, limiting the new governor’s options in fulfilling some of his campaign promises.

If the economic recovery continues, he could enjoy some happy early years like Waihee and Lingle and be a lock for re-election in 2014. But if the recession proves not to be over, he could be in for a bumpy ride like his friend Cayetano and face  serious challenges in four years.

flASHback alert

December 4, 2010

Today’s “flASHback” column in the Star-Advertiser: “Zingers fill Abercrombie’s journey to Washington Place.”

A new spotlight on rail funding

December 3, 2010

Gov. Linda Lingle threw a wrinkle into the O‘ahu rail transit debate by releasing a study critical of rail finances on her way out the door.

The $350,000 analysis by Infrastructure Management Group Inc. concluded that transit tax revenues could be 30 percent below city projections, costs could be $1.7 billion higher than estimated and ridership assumptions may be overly optimistic.

If the study is even partly right, it would mean the $5.5 billion project would need additional local taxes beyond the half-cent excise tax for transit already being paid by Oahuans. There are also concerns about federal support for its $1.5 billion share holding steady after the dramatic Republican gains in Congress.

Mayor Peter Carlisle has said construction could start as early as March if the state approves the project’s environmental impact statement soon, and Gov.-elect Neil Abercrombie has indicated he’ll approve it without regard for the financial issues.

The new financial analysis isn’t necessarily a show-stopper; Carlisle, Abercrombie and the City Council deserve a chance to review the numbers and weigh their credibility.

But they owe it to O‘ahu taxpayers to put politics aside and make an honest assessment. It would be foolhardy to plunge ahead without being able to answer up front and with some certainty how much it’ll cost and how we’ll pay for it.

Crossing our fingers and hoping for the best just doesn’t cut it on a project of this magnitude.

Richard Lim and his spear-carriers

December 1, 2010

Here’s a telling passage from former Gov. Ben Cayetano’s autobiography “Ben” (pp 519-520) that has bearing on the leadership struggle in the state House and my post earlier today on Gov.-elect Neil Abercrombie’s appointment of Richard Lim as DBEDT director and his rumored plan to name Sen. Brian Taniguchi to head of the Hawaii Labor Relations Board.

Shortly after he became Speaker, (Calvin) Say was offered and accepted a directorship on the board of directors of City Bank. Many legislators hold full-time jobs with private employers, but the propriety of a legislator sitting as a director was questionable. Unlike employees, a director owes a fiduciary duty to his company and its stockholders. This can pose a potential conflict with the fiduciary duty the legislator owes to the public. …

One morning, I got a call from Evan Dobelle, the recently appointed president of the University of Hawaii, which provided some insights to Say’s role with City Bank.

“Governor, do you know a Richard Lim from City Bank?”

“Not well, but I know who he is. Why do you ask?”

“Well, Lim asked for a meeting, and he brought along Calvin Say and Brian Taniguchi. Pres [Prescott Stewart, a Dobelle staff person] was with me. I discussed ideas that the faculty and students have for University Avenue, past the Varsity Theater down to King Street. Then Lim started talking –— and he did all of the talking while Calvin and Brian looked on. The tone of Lim’s words bothered me. In essence he seemed to be suggesting that if I wanted to get anything done at the University I should call him.”

“What did Calvin and Brian do?” I asked Dobelle.

“Well, afterward I turned to Calvin and Brian and said, ‘What was that all about?’ ” he replied.

“Did they say anything?”

“No. They just sat there looking down at their shoes — and that bothered me more than what Lim was saying. Calvin has been helpful to me and the University. I couldn’t understand his behavior.”

“Looking down at their shoes?”

Years later, I got a slightly different version of the Lim-Dobelle meeting from a former UH regent who had arranged the meeting and was also in attendance.

“I was asked to arrange a meeting with Dobelle and I did,” the regent told me. “I have no idea what Lim wanted to meet about, so I asked Calvin and Brian if they knew. They both said they didn’t.”

“How did Lim come across?”

“Well, he did all of the talking, and after a few minutes I felt Dobelle didn’t like what he was hearing. And I think everyone was kind of caught off guard by what was being said.”

“Including Calvin and Brian?”

“Probably — I think they were surprised too.”

Dobelle thought Lim was trying to intimidate him. If he was, then having that Speaker of the House and the chairman of the Senate Ways and Means Committee in tow only added to that impression. If Say and Taniguchi were surprised by Lim’s words, the right thing for them to do would have been to contact Dobelle later and clear up any misunderstanding. They didn’t. …

In 2004 Calvin Say lost his directorship when City Bank was bought out by Central Pacific Bank. Central Pacific paid a premium $91.83 price per share, up from its original offer of $21.83 less than a year earlier. So Say didn’t walk away empty-handed. His director’s stock options provided a handsome return.

Abercrombie Cabinet takes shape

December 1, 2010

With all the speculation that he was about to name a bunch of state senators to his Cabinet, I thought Gov.-elect Neil Abercrombie made a smart move by avoiding politicians in favor of people with non-political expertise in his first wave of appointments.

William Aila for Land and Natural Resources, Jodie Maesaka-Hirata for Public Safety, Alapaki Nahale-a for Hawaiian Home Lands and Richard Lim for Business, Economic Development and Tourism are all well-regarded in the areas they’ll govern and were well-received.

It’ll soften the inevitable cries of political cronyism as Abercrombie moves on to putting fellow elected officials in Cabinet posts, starting with yesterday’s appointment of Sen. Dwight Takamine to head Labor and Industrial Relations.

Sen. Russell Kokubun is reportedly still under consideration for the Department of Agriculture, as is Sen. Brian Taniguchi for the Hawai‘i Labor Relations Board and possibly Sen. Josh Green for the Department of Health.

The Legislature isn’t necessarily where I’d look for talent to manage big and complex state departments; I’m having trouble thinking of former legislators who distinguished themselves as department heads other than Charles Toguchi as schools superintendent, but I’m sure you’ll remind me if I missed anybody.

One thing I’ll say for those Abercrombie is considering is that they tend to be legislative workhorses, as opposed to the show ponies who hog the headlines while others do the heavy lifting.

Takamine and Taniguchi both have extensive experience chairing labor and money committees, giving them intimate understanding of the issues they’d face in their administrative roles.

Kokubun was the driving force behind the Hawai‘i  2050 Sustainability Task Force, and he could be the right guy to lead the new governor’s promised pursuit of food self-sufficiency.

I have further thoughts on the way Abercrombie is putting together his administration in my column in today’s Star-Advertiser, “Campaign savvy translates to smart Cabinet decisions.”

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