Archive for March 2011

New BOE represents hope for public schools

March 30, 2011

You never know how things will play out, but the initial impression here is that Gov. Neil Abercrombie did an thoughtful job of picking his first appointed Board of Education.

They’re yet to be vetted by the state Senate, but the nine members seem to represent a diverse pool of talent without being a “Noah’s Ark” of special interests who would end up working at cross purposes. All seem to have solid professional credentials relevant to some aspect of setting policy for our public schools.

The governor was wise not to include any of the members of the current elected BOE after they were so soundly repudiated by voters who opted overwhelmingly to switch to an appointed board.

It was also a good move by Abercrombie to engineer an agreement with the new board that Kathryn Matayoshi will be retained as superintendent.

It raised eyebrows when the current board hired her after a search that was less than robust, but she’s passed her battle testing by coming up with a credible plan to improve school performance and winning a $75 million federal Race to the Top grant to help implement it.

Nothing is guaranteed, but the change to a less political and more professional board has the potential to bring a leap forward for our schools, and Abercrombie appears to have done the right things to get it off to a good start.

For those who haven’t seen the news, here’s the board:

•Don Horner (chairman), chief executive officer and chairman of First Hawaiian Bank

•Wesley Lo, chief executive officer at Maui Memorial Medical Center

•Brian DeLima, attorney and former Hawaii County Council member

•Nancy Budd, attorney and a member of the Kauai Planning and Action Alliance Public Education Action Team

•Jim Williams, retired administrator and CEO of the Hawaii Employer-Union Benefits Trust Fund;

•Charlene Cuaresma, associate director of the Graduate Professional Access Program at UH-Manoa

•Cheryl Kauhane Lupenui, chief executive offer of the YWCA on Oahu

•Keith Amemiya, executive administrator and secretary of the Board of Regents

•Kim Gennaula, philanthropy director at Kapiolani Health Foundation


More honest talk needed on pot bills

March 30, 2011

It appears that all medical marijuana bills introduced in this year’s Legislature have died except SB 1458, which would allow a pilot state-licensed “compassion center” to dispense pot to those with licenses to smoke it for medical purposes.

This measure, which has been referred to the House Finance Committee, deserves to bite the dust along with the others until we get the marijuana discussion on a more honest grounding.

Clearly, the effort to expand the availability of medical marijuana has become less about compassion and more about filling state coffers by taxing it and opening a back door to legalizing pot for recreational use.

Kristen Consillio had an eye-opening piece in the Star-Advertiser about how lucrative the medical marijuana trade has become for some, even on its current limited scale.

Hawaii certificates for legal medical marijuana use are now at over 8,000, with more than half of the permits issued on the Big Island. The bulk of the prescriptions are written by a relatively small group of physicians, some of whom charge up to $300 for the service. It’s lucrative enough that doctors are flying in from the West Coast to get in on the action.

There’s little control over what constitutes an illness that benefits from pot, and the Department of Public Safety, which oversees the program, says the bulk of prescriptions are being written for patients in their 20s and 30s, who are demographically the least likely to have the kinds of medical conditions associated with marijuana relief.

It adds up to strongly suggest that a large amount of supposedly medical marijuana ends up in recreational use.

I have no problem with those who legitimately need marijuana for medical conditions being able to use it. Nor do I have a problem with an honest discussion about whether we should legalize and tax marijuana for recreational use.

But I do have a problem with using one as a fig leaf to cover the other, skipping the due diligence on the big-picture implications for our state, in order to feed the greed of marijuana suppliers looking to expand their business and lawmakers hungry for tax revenues.

Budget writers may target tax refunds

March 29, 2011

I can’t see getting too exercised about reports that the Abercrombie administration is backtracking on vows not to follow Linda Lingle’s example and kick state income tax refunds into the new fiscal year to reduce this year’s deficit.

Yeah, Gov. Neil Abercrombie earlier derided Lingle’s policy and said that to follow suit would only extend the pain to taxpayers that she caused.

But the fact is that there were few reports of serious hardship caused by last year’s delay, and doing it again may be the least disruptive way to deal with a budget deficit for the remainder of this year that is suddenly more than $230 million after the economic fallout from the Japan crisis.

Delaying refunds again would keep us in a hole and at some point we’re going to have to bite the bullet and get tax refunds back on the usual schedule, but there’s a fair argument that it’s best done in a rebound year when we have a more robust revenue stream to cushion the cost.

Administration budgeters say delaying refunds isn’t their first choice for making up the revenue slide and if they come up with better ideas, that’s fine. But it’s not an unreasonable option to keep open if it looks to be the least painful way out of this fiscal year.

Poker bill bets on a flop

March 28, 2011

A bill to make Hawai‘i a mecca for live and online poker tournaments seems to be the last gasp of gambling advocates in the Legislature after the apparent failure of of casinos in Waikiki, shipboard gambling, bingo on Hawaiian Homes lands and other gaming measures.

SB 755, which originally passed the Senate as a measure to help kids buy school supplies before being gutted by two House committees, is probably a non-starter in terms of attracting significant poker business to Hawai‘i.

Trying to pass off poker as a game of skill rather than gambling is dubious, the vigorish for the state that legislators are demanding from poker promoters appears exorbitant and the interstate commerce issues are tricky.

But if the bill passes, it’ll no longer be said that Hawai‘i is one of only two states without gambling, which will provide a foot in the door that gives more hope to promoters of other forms of gambling.

Gaming advocates are seizing on the panic that the crisis in Japan will drive the Hawai‘i economy back into deep recession and further deplete state revenues.

But the fact is that any gambling operation would take years to start generating significant revenue and would contribute absolutely nothing to solving our current woes.

Not to mention that gambling is a poor economic hedge against recession. Nevada, which depends more on gambling than any other state, has been one of the hardest hit. Do legislators seriously think that Japanese who are staying home as their country recovers from a devastating blow, would come if we had slot machines?

Gambling would change the fabric of our local society and reshape our visitor industry in ways we don’t fully understand.

If we go there, it should be after careful consideration in calmer times — not as an opportunistic quick hit by those lacking real ideas for digging out of our economic sinkhole.

Time for legislators to back off on ethics loopholes

March 25, 2011

One of the most specious arguments in the debate over SB 671 is the one offered by House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro that rules governing the gifts public officials can receive from special interests need to be loosened because Hawai‘i’s ethics law hasn’t been updated in 39 years.

For one thing, Hawai‘i’s law is viewed as one of the more lenient and would likely have to be tightened — not loosened — if a serious review were undertaken in line with common understandings about official propriety that have evolved in the last 39 years.

The coverage of this bill around the world, documented by Larry Geller in Disappeared News, is because it’s a “man bites dog” story in which the Hawai‘i Legislature is headed in the opposite direction of public sensibilities here and elsewhere.

The other reason the Oshiro argument lacks merit is that basic ethics are pretty much timeless. How often do the Ten Commandments, the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism or The Five Pillars of Islam need tweaking? When was the last time the Golden Rule was updated?

Our current law is based on the simple and sound ethic that public officials should not solicit or accept gifts intended to influence or reward them in the performance of their duties.

In an ideal world, that would say it all and lawmakers would exercise common sense in erring on the side of good ethics.

That they instead feel entitled to create loopholes that render the law meaningless in order to feed their hunger for freebies tells us that the Ethics Commission is exactly right about the need to get more specific in spelling out what is and is not acceptable behavior.

Suggestions that Ethics Commission executive director Les Kondo could be a target of retaliation by lawmakers for not playing ball are alarming.

After numerous failed attempts to finesse the wording, legislators need to recognize that what they want to do isn’t going to fly and back off.

New rail lawsuit takes shape

March 24, 2011

The city dodged a legal bullet on its $5.5 billion rail plan when a state judge yesterday threw out a lawsuit by Hawaiians trying to delay construction until the city completes a survey of burial sites along the project’s entire 20-mile route.

But a bigger legal challenge could be soon at hand with a group that includes former Gov. Ben Cayetano expected to file a federal lawsuit next month challenging the project’s environmental impact statement.

Nicholas Yost, the San Francisco attorney handling the lawsuit, will be in Honolulu next week to discuss the case with potential plaintiffs.

During the Carter administration, Yost played a lead role in drafting regulations governing federal environmental impact statements. He received the American Bar Association’s 2010 award for distinguished achievement in environmental law.

In a memo this week to Cayetano and anti-rail activist Cliff Slater, Yost indicated that the lawsuit would focus on allegations that the city:

•Violated the Transportation Act and National Historic Preservation Act by failing consider alternatives for avoiding historic sites.

•Used outdated information for population and ridership projections that skewed the results of the environmental study and fell short of the legal requirement for scientifically valid methodology.

•Improperly limited the EIS to the 20 miles between East Kapolei and Ala Moana Center while failing to include studies of future extensions to West Kapolei, Waikiki and the University of Hawai’i.

•Failed to meet its obligation under the National Environmental Policy Act to study all reasonable alternatives to heavy rail and give each equal consideration. Yost said the EIS omitted the managed lane alternative and gave short shrift to bus rapid transit and light rail.

He said the city’s EIS misstated the purpose and need for the project as “providing high capacity rapid transit” instead of the correct broader purpose of “moving people from west to east and east to west.”

“It confuses a potential alternative solution with the underlying purpose and need,” he said. “So stated, all non-rapid transit alternatives are automatically excluded. … That violates the law.”

Cayetano accused Mayor Peter Carlisle of a “publicity stunt” to impress visiting U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood when he announced this week that a $574 million contract has been awarded to AnsaldoBreda to provide cars for the rail system, along with a $372 million contract to Kiewit Infrastructure West to build the second phase of the rail line from Pearl Highlands to Aloha Stadium. Kiewit earlier got the contract for the first phase starting in Kapolei.

Cayetano said the city doesn’t have the funds on hand to cover the more than $1 billion in contracts awarded by Carlisle and former Mayor Mufi Hannemann and that it’s “irresponsible to award such contracts while there is no full funding agreement between the (Federal Transit Administration) and the City.”

Legislators fight for the right to freeload (cont’d)

March 23, 2011

The one thing you can count on with our Legislature is that bad ideas never die, especially when it comes to legislators taking care of themselves.

So it is with SB 671, a shameless attempt by lawmakers to render themselves ethically free to accept gifts, travel and free meals from those seeking to buy their favor.

The original version drafted by Senate Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria would have allowed legislators and other public officials to accept or even solicit virtually unlimited travel and meals and other gifts worth up to $200 from just about anybody seeking to influence their actions.

After a public outcry, the version that passed the Senate was stripped down to limit the gifts lawmakers could accept to free tickets to fundraisers of IRS 501(c)(3) organizations (public charities and private foundations).

The state Ethics Commission voted last week to oppose even that, noting that charities have business before the Legislature and if lawmakers want to attend their functions they can pay their own way like everybody else.

When the bill got to the House, Majority Leader Blake Oshiro amended it again to throw travel and other gifts back into the mix of allowable freebies and expand the definition of “charities” that could gift legislators to once again include nominally nonprofit lobbying organizations, labor unions, trade associations and business organizations such as the Chamber of Commerce and Board of Realtors.

“Invitations could be accepted even where it reasonably could be inferred that the invitation is offered to influence or reward the legislator or state employee,” said Ethics Commission executive director Les Kondo.

The Ethics Commission interprets current law to bar meals and gifts worth more than $25 in the absence of a clear public benefit.

Oshiro’s main motivation for loosening the rules seems to be that he’s tired of fielding calls from ethically challenged colleagues whining that they can’t have their freebies. Poor babies.

The House Judiciary Committee put off further consideration until next week.

Politics and judges; Hanabusa’s housing

March 22, 2011

When I did a Google search to find out more about Joseph L. Wildman, appointed by Gov. Neil Abercrombie to be a Maui Circuit Court judge, the first two items of interest were that Wildman came out of the law firm of Rep. Gil-Keith Agaran, the House Judiciary chairman, and donated $1,610 to Abercrombie’s campaign for governor.

Does anybody detect the scent of politics?

That’s the problem with Abercrombie’s decision to keep secret the names of candidates provided him by the Judicial Selection Commission, abandoning the transparency practiced by the two previous governors from different parties and the last two chief justices, who all made the lists public when appointing judges.

It naturally breeds suspicion when the governor appoints a campaign donor or somebody with other obvious political connections and the public can’t see how the candidate’s legal credentials compare with those passed over.

Hopefully, the legal qualifications of Wildman and other appointees will be fully vetted by the Senate in the confirmation process, but without the lists of finalists, we still won’t be able to judge either the quality of the candidates put forth by the selection commission or the credibility of the governor’s choices.

Abercrombie contends that throwing out transparency to give lawyers who apply a level of privacy that even the Hawai‘i Supreme Court said wasn’t necessary will result in higher quality applicants.

But we’ll never be able to tell whether the applicants are better, of course, because the selection commission’s lists of top applicants that we were previously able to see and evaluate are now secret.


Several people have asked recently whether U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa kept her promise to move into the 1st Congressional District she represents after the November election.

I put the question to the congresswoman’s spokesperson, Ashley Nagaoka, and got this response:

She has found several places in downtown Honolulu and will be deciding on one very soon. Her current home (a Ko Olina condo) will also be going on the market soon.

Sounds like reasonable progress, given the state of the local housing market and that Hanabusa has been in Washington most of the time since the election.

A sinking feeling about Libya

March 21, 2011

Who would have guessed that at the mid-term of an Obama administration that was elected partly out of public frustration with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the United States would be embroiled in a third war in the Middle East?

Like the still smoldering conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S.-led attack on Libya’s Moammar Gadhafi appears to have no clear goals, exit strategy or link to our country’s national interests.

The administration says the primary objective is to protect civilians caught up in a civil conflict, but after President Barack Obama earlier expressed a desire for Gadhafi to leave, anything short of that could look like a failure.

Critics make a solid case that if we were going in, we should have done it a couple of weeks ago before Gadhafi reclaimed the upper hand from the rebels.

Now that we’re in, how long are we willing to stay if Gadhafi proves resilient? If the dictator falls, what role are we willing to play in Libya’s rebuilding? How do we justify squandering more of our national wealth blowing up and then reconstructing another Middle Eastern country while our own economy crumbles?

It’s difficult to detect enthusiasm for this new misadventure from any segment of the U.S. body politic; just disappointment that we can’t ever seem to learn from past mistakes.

Knowing Jack

March 17, 2011

This has been an emotional week in which I came out of retirement as a basic news reporter to write an obituary in yesterday’s Star-Advertiser on Jack Bryan, my friend, colleague and mentor who died Saturday in Thailand at 91.

Jack gave me my first journalism job in the Star-Bulletin Hilo bureau 43 years ago. I showed up for the interview as a college student only slightly better groomed than the young Neil Abercrombie, but Jack let me have a shot after nobody else applied for the 15-hour-a-week intern position. Ironically, one of the main responsibilities was writing obituaries.

It’s a cliché to say somebody taught you everything you know, but that’s pretty much what Jack did for me; I’d taken no journalism courses and had zero news experience when he took me on.

When I moved to Honolulu a year later and applied for a job at the newspaper, that time working part-time with Jack — studying his stories as I punched them into the teletype, watching how he worked news sources and carried himself in the community, listening to him talk about the job — left me well-prepared to compete for work against bright UH journalism students.

More than that, the quiet class Jack projected gave me a deep respect for the news profession and a desire to make it my own calling.

Jack was an old-school newsman whose kind pretty much disappeared in the corporate and Internet ages. He worked copy desk jobs at a half-dozen newspapers across the U.S. and in Australia before settling in Hawai‘i with his wife and three kids.

“He was among the last of a dwindling group of itinerant newspaper veterans, journeymen in every sense of the word,” said our colleague John Simonds.

The World War II generation that Jack belonged to was America’s greatest, in the estimation of Tom Brokaw, and certainly spawned one of our greatest generations of American journalists.

My week of remembering Jack leaves me a little embarrassed by the mess my generation has made of the rich journalistic legacy they left us.

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