Posted tagged ‘Legislature’

Guv signs pay bill; Hanabusa continues house hunt

May 31, 2011

Catching up on a couple of things …

With no fanfare, comment or drama Gov. Neil Abercrombie wisely signed HB 575 to continue 5 percent pay cuts for legislators, administrators and judges for two more years, matching the cuts being asked of unionized public workers.

The measure also continues a freeze on all step increases top state officials would have received since Jan. 1, 2009; if the governor had vetoed the bill, on July 1 legislators would have received 12 percent raises, administrators 17 percent and judges 28.5 percent.

What seemed a simple matter at the beginning of the legislative session became bogged down in maneuvering between the House and Senate and failed to pass out of conference committee.

In the session’s final days, the House accepted a Senate version that many members thought was legally flawed to avoid the public wrath that would surely come if elected officials got pay raises while demanding sacrifices of everybody else.

Abercrombie’s signature suggests the attorney general thinks the measure is legally defensible, and hopefully, we’ve heard the last of this for a couple of years …

U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa continues to plug away at keeping her campaign promise to move into the 1st Congressional District she represents.

According to her spokeswoman Ashley Nagaoka, Hanabusa has been holding open houses to sell her Ko Olina home, with the intent of using the proceeds to buy in CD1.

“Until that happens she will have to rent an apartment,” Nagaoka said. “She has narrowed her apartment search down to one building in Honolulu, but I can’t give you the name of the building for security purposes.”


Time for the governor to show if he’s got game

May 24, 2011

The next few months will tell whether the Abercrombie administration is going to give us a new day in Hawai‘i or a lot of same old-same old.

Even Gov. Neil Abercrombie admits his administration is off to a slow start, telling an O’ahu Democratic Party group that he and the 2011 Legislature didn’t live up to the high expectations many voters had when Democrats regained control of the executive branch as well as the Legislature.

It’s partly the governor’s own fault. He called for shared sacrifice, but the specifics didn’t seem spread very evenly. His waffling on a general excise tax increase angered both constituents and some lawmakers. He got off message with distractions he created on Barack Obama’s birth certificate and his ill-advised move to shroud judicial appointments in secrecy.

Abercrombie was surprisingly inarticulate in explaining himself to the public; he’s often sounded less like a Ph.D. and more like the kid who came of age in New York during the Yankees heyday of Yogi Berra and Casey Stengel.

But that said, a choppy beginning is difficult to avoid with Hawai‘i’s political calendar, and Abercrombie can still have a good first year if he gets focused and back on point in the remaining months of 2011.

The first four months of the year are the Legislature’s time, and it’s difficult for any administration — much less a brand new bunch — to get a lot done when lawmakers demand department heads at their hearings on a daily basis and the administration doesn’t know the budget number it has to work with.

As the governor was reported to have told his Cabinet, “They run the state for four months and we run the state for eight months.”

So now its Abercrombie’s time. To save his year, he needs to set a clear agenda for his team, avoid new distractions and show visible progress in reshaping the state government as he promised and advancing his initiatives on creating jobs, reducing homelessness, adding workforce housing and encouraging energy and food independence.

He must rediscover his voice from the campaign that brought people together behind him and make sure the sacrifices he asks truly represent fair sharing.

Then he must pull it all together into a compelling program to take to the 2012 Legislature — and sell it with the come-to-Jesus message he gave the O‘ahu Democrats.

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.

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.

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.

Legislative salaries redux

April 28, 2011

House and Senate conferees will continue talks at 8 p.m. today on HB 575 to extend a 5 percent cut on legislative salaries from the current June 30 expiration date until Dec. 31, 2013.

Meantime, our longtime contributor Charles added a comment to my Monday post on the subject criticizing me for not mentioning arguments in defense of the Legislature’s 36 percent pay raise in 2009.

I doubt many were still following the thread by time Charles posted his comment, so to be fair to the other side, I’ll put him in prime time:

David conveniently forgets everytime he mentions the raises that legislators went without any raises for 12 years; a period when I dare say everyone working in Hawaii (including David and me) got raises.

Now if during that time, David wrote a column complimenting legislators for not having a raise when everyone else was, I missed it and maybe he can provide a link to it.

For me, I don’t know what is “fair” in terms of compensation for legislators but I have two observations:

1. Many claim it’s a cruise job getting paid almost five large ones for four months of work. Does anyone truly believe that all legislators simply close their doors at the end of session and then open back up the day session opens the following year?

2. If it’s such a cruise job, it’s puzzling why there are so few takers.

Again, it is true that the salary commission recommended a 36% pay raise for legislators (and it must be noted far bigger raises, dollarwise, for the executive branch and judges). And if David wants to continue to raise this fact ad nauseum, go for it. But to never mention that they went without raises for a long time to put it in context seems that David wants to make a point rather than be accurate.

That said, it’s his blog and his right to be inaccurate by omission.

I’ll give him the last word on the bulk of his argument (for now, anyway), but a couple of points of clarification:

• My problem wasn’t so much with the amount of the 2009 raise, but its timing in the worst recession in state history when lawmakers were demanding sacrifices from everybody else. No matter how entitled they felt, the only true leadership is by example.

• Alas, I wasn’t getting raises as Charles assumes in the years legislators went without. My pay for my newspaper column remains the same as when I first contracted to do it 12 years and three newspapers ago.

Frankly, I’m just grateful to be one of the few of my contemporaries still in print journalism — and still having fun at it.

Time for Legislature to undo its mistake on UH regents

April 27, 2011

I hate to say I told you so, but the political chickens of Democratic legislators are coming home to roost on their ill-advised decision to force the governor to appoint University of Hawai’i regents from a list provided by a selection panel.

Gov. Neil Abercrombie yesterday withdrew two of his five regent appointments after they were rejected by the Senate Education Committee.

Sen. Jill Tokuda, the committee chairwoman, said questions arose about the qualifications of Big Island nominees Sandra Scarr and Patrick Naughton. Abercrombie’s spokesperson blamed the selection panel, saying the governor requested more candidates to choose from but was denied.

Tokuda said the appointment system needs to be reviewed. Duh.

The selection panel that was pushed through by lawmakers and ratified by voters was a bad idea enacted for the wrong reasons.

The old system in which the governor appointed whomever he or she wished as regents subject to Senate confirmation — similar to the process recently enacted for appointing the Board of Education — worked well enough.

Democratic lawmakers enacted the change solely for the purpose of handcuffing former Republican Gov. Linda Lingle and limiting her choices.

Former UH President David McClain derided the selection panel as a “Noah’s Ark” of special interests. The leading national organization for accrediting colleges and universities recommended strongly against the change as bad practice.

But the Democrats were determined to have their pound of political flesh; especially egregious was the Legislature’s decision to allow the panel to give the governor as few as two candidates to choose from, leaving the executive little meaningful role in shaping the state university and providing zero accountability — as seen in the current finger-pointing.

At the very least, legislators need to change the law to require the panel to give the governor four to six candidates to choose from, which is the standard for such selection committees.

Better yet would be for lawmakers to admit their politically motivated mistake and put a constitutional amendment on the 2012 ballot taking us back to the traditional appointment system that served us well for over 40 years.

Will legislators share in the pay sacrifices?

April 25, 2011

Most unionized state workers are looking at 5 percent pay cuts over the next two years, but it remains to be seen if their leaders in the Legislature will impose the same cuts on themselves.

After being widely criticized in 2009 for taking 36 percent raises for themselves while demanding sacrifices from everybody else in one of the worse years of the recession, lawmakers voted to take a 5 percent cut along with administrators and judges.

But that pay freeze expires June 30 unless legislators extend it before they adjourn May 5.

Measures to extend the legislative freeze until Dec. 1, 2013, have passed both the House and Senate, but language differences must be worked out in conference committee. The Senate has named conferees led by Judiciary Chairman Clayton Hee, but the House has not named conferees and no meetings are set with time running out.

If the 2009 pay freeze expires, lawmakers will not only get back the 5 percent cut, but also two frozen 3.5 percent increases granted by the state salary commission that were scheduled to take effect on Jan. 1, 2010, and Jan. 1, 2011. The salary commission schedule also calls for 3.5 percent raises in 2012, 2013 and 2014.

Under the latest version of the extension bill, HB 575, all of the lost pay — a total of 22.5 percent — would be restored to legislators on Jan. 1, 2014, increasing their current pay of $46,272 to more than $56,600. The president of the Senate and speaker of the House receive an additional $7,500.

Update: The House appointed conferees Monday led by Reps. Karl Rhoads and Marcus Oshiro, but the bill was re-referred to both the Labor and Finance committees and no conference session was scheduled.

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