Archive for May 2011

Hawai‘i federal judges look like poster kids for rail suit

May 16, 2011

There’s more than a little irony in the decision of all of Hawai‘i’s  federal judges to recuse themselves from presiding over an environmental lawsuit seeking to stop the $5.3 billion O‘ahu rail project.

The judges stepped aside because eight of the nine of them signed a letter in 2008 asking the city to reconsider the rail route, expressing security concerns about an elevated train whizzing down Halekauwila Street right past the windows of their chambers.

The mass recusal throws the lawsuit filed by former Gov. Ben Cayetano, state Sen. Sam Slom, businessman Cliff Slater and others to Judge A. Wallace Tashima of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco.

The irony is that the judges might be one of the best examples of the plaintiffs’ claim that city officials gave illegally short shrift to alternate proposals in their headlong rush to ram the project through on an accelerated schedule.

Federal buildings have been one of the most worrisome targets of terrorist attacks since the Oklahoma City bombing, and the Hawai‘i judges made a reasonable argument that running the train so close to the Honolulu federal building posed unacceptable risks.

They received an arrogant and insulting response from the city to the effect that there are easier ways to blow away a judge than from a train, typical of the hostility toward reasonable concerns raised by responsible people that threatened any delay in the project.

If the Hawai‘i judges won’t be wielding the gavel, they might make interesting witnesses.

Mailani gives fresh voice to the ‘aina

May 13, 2011

I’m not a music reviewer, but I enjoy passing along new releases that resonate with me and Mailani fills the bill with her new album “‘Aina” (Mountain Apple, $15.98; iTunes, $9.99).

I seldom find an album on which I really like every single cut, but it happened with her debut solo CD “Mailani,” and “‘Aina” does it again as Mailani moves easily between the traditional and the modern.

Highlights include Jon Osorio and Randy Borden’s “Hawaiian Eyes,” a moving “Kaula ‘Ili” with her Papa talking story over the music, “Ka Nani o Kā‘ena,” an original she wrote with Keola Donaghy, a soaring “Tewe Tewe,” Robert Cazimero’s “Pane Mai” and U2’s “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

She doesn’t bring much new to “Yesterday” over the Paul McCartney version except a verse in Hawaiian, but it’s a beautiful song that fits her strong voice.

That voice is what makes Mailani’s recordings special, and it’s nicely highlighted with simple arrangements and backup — mostly herself on guitar, Trey on ukulele and guitar, Seann Carroll on percussion and Shawn Ishimoto on bass.

Mailani has been around since she formed the popular duo Keahiwai in high school, and with “‘Aina” she’s hit full stride. See for yourself with the video of “He‘eia,” one of the cuts from the CD.

Was the Senate heroic or peevish on unfinished business?

May 12, 2011

State senators acted like there was something noble in their decision to rigidly enforce a procedural deadline, resulting in the Legislature adjourning with major business left unfinished.

According to news reports, Senate President Shan Tsutsui choked up as he thanked senators for backing a leadership decision to cut off conference committees at exactly the 6 p.m. deadline on their final day instead of letting them go on until midnight, as is customary.

As a result, the Legislature didn’t fund legal settlements the state agreed to, bringing a stern lecture from a federal judge, or pony up for security for the APEC conference we avidly courted. The UH medical school was cut off from tobacco funds and the pay bill for legislators, administrators and judges was botched.

There seems a growing certainly that a special session will be needed to clean up the mess, which makes you wonder about all the self-congratulation among senators.

Tsutsui described the sudden procedural fussiness as a blow for “greater transparency, openness, accessibility for the public,” while Majority Leader Brickwood Galuteria called it a “sea change.”

I’m as much a supporter of transparency and openness as anybody, but I don’t get it. How is the considerable expense of a special session better than spending six more hours taking care of necessary business while they were already in session?

Some who follow the Legislature more closely than I do say it was mostly a display of senatorial pique at the House and Gov. Neil Abercrombie over some budget decisions senators didn’t like.

If there’s any validity to that, we should send Shan and Brickwood the tab for the special session and give them something to really get choked up about.

Obama on the political rebound?

May 11, 2011

It’s amazing what a gutsy move to settle an old score can do for a president’s standing with voters.

President Barack Obama’s approval rating surged to 60 percent of voters in an Associated Press-GfK poll after the dramatic Navy Seals mission that killed Osama bin Laden, recovering from a low of 47 percent after last year’s Republican gains in midterm congressional elections and approaching his high of 64 percent after his election in 2008.

Bin Laden’s ability to elude U.S. pursuers after sponsoring the Sept.11, 2001 terrorist attacks was a festering frustration for the American public, and bringing him to justice dramatically improved Obama’s marks on keeping the country safe, with 73 percent now saying they’re confident in his ability to handle the terrorist threat.

The surge of approval spilled over to domestic issues, with 52 percent now saying they approve of Obama’s handling of the economy despite the slow recovery from the recession and continuing high unemployment.

The raid that took down bin Laden in Pakistan came shortly after the president took the offensive against the “birther” conspiracy by releasing his Hawai‘i birth certificate and stepped up his aggressiveness in battling Republicans on issues from the budget to immigration reform.

Public opinion is fickle and his standing with voters could go south again just as fast as it rose if he ends up on the unflattering end of the next big story.

But the timing of the latest surge couldn’t be better for Obama as he launches his campaign for re-election in 2012 that many considered hopeless after Republicans took firm control of the House and made major gains in the Senate.

He’s clearly trying to follow the pattern set by Bill Clinton in 1996 when he fought off a popular belief that he’d become irrelevant by deftly handling a similar GOP takeover of the House and cruising to easy re-election against a weak Republican field.

If Obama goes into the 2012 election strong, it would bode well for Democrats’ chances of keeping control of the Senate and have major implications in the Hawai‘i Senate race to replace the retiring Daniel Akaka.

Abercrombie touts political diversity

May 10, 2011

In a speech to O‘ahu Democrats over the weekend, Gov. Neil Abercrombie raised the intriguing possibility of supporting a return to multimember legislative districts.

Hawai‘i had many multimember House and Senate districts until 1982, when a Republican reapportionment lawsuit forced a change to all single-member districts.

It was one of the biggest bonehead moves in local political history, as multimember districts with as many as four seats made it much easier for minority party candidates to get elected.

Before the change, Republicans had influential caucuses in both houses, often with enough numerical strength to force votes, pull bills to the floor and be a factor in Democratic organizational disputes.

Since 1982, Republican numbers in the Legislature have been so small as to render them insignificant; currently, they hold only eight of 51 House seats and one of 25 Senate seats.

But multimember districts don’t help only Republicans. They also bring fresh blood into the Democratic caucus by encouraging young activists, ethnic minorities and those who can’t raise big campaign funds. Abercrombie and former Gov. Ben Cayetano both benefited from running in multimember districts early in their careers.

“I doubt seriously I would have been elected in 1974 in the old 19th Representative District where more than 60 percent of the voters were AJAs and I was the only non-AJA running in the Democratic primary,” Cayetano said in his autobiography, “Ben.”

“Fortunately the 19th was a two-member district and the voters had choices. … Single-mrmber districts give well-financed incumbents a tremendous advantage over newcomers.”

Abercrombie said Saturday, “You can say, ‘Yes, there may be a big dog in this district here, but this little puppy wants to have a shot. And can you give me a chance?’ ”

We could use some more political diversity around here, and kudos to Abercrombie for bringing it up.

Rep. Belatti on legislative pay raises

May 9, 2011

Rep. Della Au Belatti, a leading critic of HB 575 extending a 5 percent pay cut on legislators, administrators and judges, posted a comment Saturday after most people had stopped following the comment thread on our Friday post, “Legislators extend their pay cuts — for now.”

Belatti was mentioned in some of the comments in that thread, and to make sure contrary views get fair airing, I’m repeating her comment below.

Feel free to post your own comments agreeing or disagreeing with what she has to say, but please observe the courtesy of keeping it on issue rather than personal.

While I get it why many feel it necessary to comment under pseudonyms because of their jobs or other situations, I would like this blog to become a forum where people who wish to use their real names feel comfortable doing so and I give a quick hook to unduly personal attacks against those who do. Thanks for understanding.

Dave, as always, I appreciate your blog; and while I know there are things we disagree on, I too think highly of you and the forum you provide to both elevate and inform the discussion.

First, just to respond a little to the characterization made by “Earl of Sandwich”: the Majority Leader described a yes vote on HB575 as a symbolic vote that provides opportunity and options. More than just “sounding the alarm” on this bill, my no vote on HB575 was also symbolic and a way to highlight the choices that are before us as legislators. As I stated on the floor, I have no objection to a 5% reduction, but how we get there is important. We as legislators need to do a better job of crafting the laws in the first place and then not abuse legislative process so that we are not placed in this awkward situation of passing such a flawed and, in my view, unconstitutional bill.

Second, and more importantly to elevate the conversation and also to respond to “Earl of Sandwich’s” question, the story of salaries does not simply end with the House’s vote on HB575 and the Governor’s potential veto. The rest of the story is also about the TIMING of that veto, whether or not the Legislature goes in to special session, and the whole host of unfinished business that was left undone due to botched conference negotiations.

As noted, the Governor can veto by the 45-day period specified in the State Constitution and the Legislature can come in on July 12th to address those vetoes. He can also veto before July 12th, as nothing in the Constitution prohibits an earlier veto message, and the Constitution permits the Governor to convene a special session of the Legislature or 2/3 of each chamber can by written request call for the convening of special session anytime after adjournment.

Based on this, as far as I can tell, here are the different scenarios:

VETO BEFORE JUNE 29, 2011: If the Governor vetoes HB575 some time, let’s say at least 10 days before June 30, 2011, then presumably the 5% pay cut of 2009 will not be extended and the pay freeze that was set forth will be lifted on July 1, 2011, resulting in pay raises for all executive, judicial and legislative officers. This window of time will then allow the Legislature, if it truly has the political will and both House & Senate leaders really want to extend the 2009 pay freeze & the 5% reduction, enough time to go into session and fix HB575.

VETO AFTER JULY 1, 2011: If the Governor vetoes HB575 after July 1, 2011, the 2009 pay freeze & 5% reduction will have been lifted and all executive, judicial and legislative officers will effectively get pay raises. The Legislature can still go in and then impose 5% reductions. Under this scenario, we, the Legislature can claim it wasn’t our fault that all salaried officers essentially got a pay increase given the veto schedule set forth in the Constitution and the date of effect and repeal of the 2009 pay reduction, but even in light of that pay increase, the Legislature still cut and reduced salaries of all public officers in the spirit of shared sacrifice.

NO VETO: If the Governor punts, then those constitutional questions I raised are still present. Presumably, the Legislature can then fix the more serious constitutional flaws with HB575 (especially the one that would give legislators nearly a $10,000 pay increase in 2014 while keeping judges and executive officers at their 2009 step freeze), but what about the other serious concerns raised by the Judiciary that effectively demonstrate that judges are woefully underpaid? Also, a legislative fix could still result in some type of pay raise between 2012 and 2014 that would undercut and complicate the initial story that legislators extended their 5% pay cuts.

So what’s my solution, my proposal? There’s already been talk about a possible special session because of possible downward projections by the Council of Revenues (although I’m not sure about this given UHERO’s recent report that says Japanese tourism downturn is not going to affect Hawaii’s slow recovery) and because so many bills (upon which there was agreement) did not move due to missed deadlines and botched conference negotiations. The Governor can veto before June 29th, and whether called in by the Governor or the Legislature ourselves, let’s convene a special session to deal with any veto overrides (if there are any), deal with unfinished bills for which there is essentially agreement, and let’s have an honest discussion and clean fix for the matter of public officers’ salaries until the salary commission is set to convene and make its next set of recommendations.

(One postscript and a comment lest any commenter wants to be snarky. (1) As a matter of disclosure, the law firm I work for does have claims against the State in the claims settlement bill that the Legislature failed to pass out. In public statements about a possible special session, references to this claims bill have been made as a reason to return for a special session. I disclosed this matter to the Democratic caucus upon discussions regarding the request by the Governor for both House and Senate to reconsider bills that had failed to make it out of Conference Committee. I believe other colleagues may have firms that also have claims, but I’ll leave it for them to make those disclosures.

(2) Dave, the failure of the claims settlement bill to move out could be the subject of another discussion that focuses on the conduct of the Legislature to deal (or not deal) with bills that should as a matter of policy not be subject to the gamesmanship that is typically associated with conduct of conference negotiations….but I’ll leave that blog topic for you if you are so inspired and want to delve into the matter.)

Legislators extend their pay cuts — for now

May 6, 2011

Well, true to the word of some of our friends who post here, the Legislature extended the 5 percent pay cut on lawmakers, administrators and judges for two more years when the House accepted Senate amendments to HB 575.

I’m glad they did the right thing — for now anyway. The issue may not be settled, with legislators raising ominous questions about “constitutional” problems and some urging Gov. Neil Abercrombie to veto the bill so they can “fix” it.

A veto that resulted in any portion of the frozen pay being restored would blow to smithereens Abercrombie’s credibility with the public on his pitch for shared sacrifice.

Equally problematic would be a legal ruling restoring the pay raises issued by state judges who would benefit, based on pleadings by legislators and administrators who would benefit.

The vast majority of the public isn’t going to buy any arguments about legal complications. They know right from wrong and they see it as simply wrong for top public officials to take pay raises for themselves in a crushing recession while demanding painful sacrifices from everybody else — pay cuts for unionized public workers and tax increases for citizens.

Any complications are the Legislature’s own fault. If there are problems with HB 575, it’s only because legislators waited too long to resolve them and ran out of time.

The awkward entanglements between the pay of legislators and that of administrators and judges were introduced by design when lawmakers crafted the 2006 constitutional amendment creating the state salary commission.

On the legal front … dubious priorities and values

May 5, 2011

USA Today and the Star-Advertiser report that Hawai‘i Attorney General David Louie might be interested in joining Utah in a lawsuit challenging the legality of the college football Bowl Championship Series.

Utah AG Mark Shurtleff argues the BCS violates antitrust law by depriving equal access to top bowl bids to schools like the University of Hawai‘i that don’t belong to BCS conferences.

It was a pet issue of Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s when he was in Congress, but I’m not seeing where Hawai‘i has enough of a beef for it to be worth the time and expense of getting involved in the lawsuit when we have more pressing concerns.

The only year UH played well enough to be worthy of a BCS appearance, in the undefeated season of 2007-2008, the Warriors received an invitation to the BCS Sugar Bowl. We didn’t exactly prove we belonged in the 41-10 loss to Georgia.

***

A couple of court cases yesterday:

• Honolulu prosecutors threw the book at former beauty queen Susan Shaw in a $200,000 identity theft and credit card fraud case, refusing to negotiate the charges, and she was sentenced to 20 years in prison.

• Retired University of Hawaii math professor David Stegenga got a plea deal of five years probation with no jail time for sexually assaulting a neighbor girl from 1999 to 2005, when she was between the ages of 7 and 13, in a crime that often causes major long-term trauma for the victim.

How is this right? What are our values?

Happy feet and jive spirits

May 4, 2011

My, so much discord around here lately.

The Legislature is taking a cruise day before the finale of its session, so let’s do the same. Let’s revel in the sunshine. Let’s be happy. Let’s dance.

To help you along, I give you this video forwarded to me by my friend Buck Donham in Arkansas. Watch it and I guarantee you’ll spend the rest of the day happily humming and tapping your toes.

Pay raises for legislators not dead yet

May 3, 2011

Legislators are going into the final days of their session with the possibility still alive of giving themselves big pay raises as unionized public workers take 5 percent cuts and constituents are asked to sacrifice more of their income to higher taxes.

Both houses voted to extend for two more years a 5 percent pay cut legislators took in 2009 to quell public uproar over a 36 pay raise they’d accepted while other state employees were furloughed in one of the worse years of the recession.

However, a conference committee failed to resolve differences between the two versions of HB 575 and was dissolved.

Without floor action in both houses by Thurday to extend the 2009 cut and freeze, not only will the 5 percent cut be restored to legislators’ paychecks on July 1, but they’ll also receive frozen 3.5 percent raises from Jan. 1, 2010 and Jan. 12, 2011.

That’s a total raise of 12 percent from $46,272 to about $52,000 for lawmakers on the same day members of the Hawaii Government Employees Association start taking a 5 percent cut.

It would mean a cumulative salary increase of 43 percent for part-time legislators during two and a half years of crushing recession, when the state has been chasing billion-dollar deficits.

Ending the freeze would also restore additional 3.5 percent raises for legislators on Jan. 1, 2012, Jan. 1, 2013 and Jan. 1, 2014 while unionized state workers will likely still be subject to 5 percent cuts.

Failure to pass the extension would also end the 5 percent pay cuts and freezes imposed on state administrators and judges in 2009. The Abercrombie administration, which has preached a mantra of shared sacrifice, has been publicly silent on the matter while the Judiciary has  pressed for restoration of judges’ pay.

The six years of pay raises starting in 2009 were approved by a salary commission whose majority is appointed by the speaker of the House and president of the Senate.

Legislators have defended their big salary increases on the basis that they went 12 years without raises from 1993 to 2005. That was mostly during the Cayetano-era recession when state budgets were nearly as tight as they are now. When that recession started to ease, they received raises in 2005.

If lawmakers make a late move to extend the pay freeze, two possible scenarios have been floated.

One would be to cleanly extend the 2009 freeze until 2013, leaving salaries where they are now. The other is a sleight of hand that would move the base for the 5 percent cut to what officials were receiving on Jan. 1, 2011 instead of Jan. 1, 2009, resulting in lawmakers getting a net 7 percent raise on July 1.

Conniving to raise their own pay by any amount while demanding sacrifices from everybody else would likely enrage the public and seriously erode the moral authority of the Legislature’s budget and tax package to close the state’s $1.3 billion deficit.


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