State Representative Marcus R. Oshiro
House Majority Leader
OPENING DAY REMARKS
January 16, 2002
Thank you, Mr. Speaker. I look forward to another opportunity to work with you and my colleagues during this 2002 regular session of the 21st Legislature of the State of Hawaii.
The tragic events of September 11th revealed a clear and present danger to the American people, and temporarily slowed the state’s progress toward a return to economic prosperity. But like the rest of the nation, Hawaii survived. We cannot change unless we survive.
The task before us, Mr. Speaker, is threefold. We must ensure the safety and security of Hawaii’s citizens and visitors, jumpstart the rapid recovery of our state economy, and set policies that will yield long-term economic sustainability and diversity.
What can the Legislature do to responsibly address Hawaii’s current situation? In order to act in the public’s best interest, legislators must apply sound reason and rational judgment in their decisions, and not drift with the winds of public opinion. It is always easy to say what’s popular. It is not always easy or popular to do what is right.
Regardless of where our political philosophies lie, four universal maxims must be accepted if our actions are to have any significant impact or positive effect on the people we represent.
First and foremost, we’re all in this together. We must recognize that we are responsible for our actions, and should not blame others for our misfortunes. This will only divert us from the task at hand. Therefore, Mr. Speaker, it is especially important in these extraordinary times that we seek common ground as our means of achieving solutions, and not dwell upon our differences.
The proposal to eliminate the general excise tax on food provides a case in point. The estimated $230 million loss of revenue, Mr. Speaker, is equal to 75% of our general fund budget for the University of Hawaii. It is greater than the combined operating budgets of nine entire departments, all 13 neighbor island hospitals, the Hawaii State Library System, and all executive agencies, including the Campaign Spending Commission and State Ethics Commission. Further, the GET is a tax on merchants, not consumers, and the proposal doesn’t require that the merchant pass on the savings. Finally 30% of that revenue comes from visitor spending, and cutting taxes for tourists further burdens our residents.
Second, we must be truthful, both to our constituency and ourselves. We realize that the responsibility to make tough decisions, whenever necessary, comes with the privileges of our office. By promising what we should not or cannot deliver, we erode confidence in our political institutions.
Although some would have people believe otherwise, under your leadership we have maintained firm discipline and accountability when setting our fiscal priorities. According to the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council, growth in Hawaii state spending was slower during the last ten years than every other state in the nation except for Wyoming and Alaska. In contrast, and contrary to popular opinion, Texas government spending nearly tripled during that same period.
Third, simple solutions do not always remedy complex problems. Dilemmas often present themselves in contrasting colors and hues, and can seldom be addressed in black-and-white terms.
For instance, some of our colleagues have publicly suggested that a $230 million reduction in general excise tax revenues can be dealt with by reducing state personnel through attrition. However, attrition requires that vacancies be left unfilled in the areas where they occur, primarily within the ranks of correctional officers, custodians, nurses, and teachers. Further, because the average annual rate of vacancy, excluding teachers, is about 2,000, balancing that revenue loss through attrition can only be achieved if also accompanied by budget cuts and more layoffs.
Mr. Speaker, we cannot honestly pledge that there will be no pain, no loss of jobs, no cuts in services, or no declines in revenues. People will be affected—our relatives, our friends, our neighbors — all of us.
And fourth, we must recognize what we can effect, and then ensure that we are effective. For example, state legislators across the country are currently introducing measures dealing with terrorism, ranging from wiretaps to penalties for hoaxes. We must also ensure our state’s effective medical and emergency response to real and potential terrorist threats, while also coordinating with current federal efforts.
Mr. Speaker, we will see to it that all state law enforcement, medical, and emergency response personnel are provided enough resources to protect Hawaii’s people and visitors from the forces of terrorism. Your Majority will aggressively pursue all available federal funding for homeland security to free state monies for other priorities.
Last fall, as we deliberated our options after the events of September 11th, we recognized our own limits in what we could effect as state legislators. However, that critical recognition of those limits ensured our effectiveness in addressing Hawaii's most critical needs in October’s emergency Special Session.
We strengthened security at our state’s airports and harbors, and on our highways. We extended unemployment benefits for an additional 13 weeks. We provided a low-cost health insurance plan for dislocated workers.
We authorized temporary financial assistance for those facing a loss of housing because of layoffs and cutbacks. We directed $2 million for food and emergency shelter for our state’s needy and vulnerable.
We created an environmental workforce to provide meaningful temporary employment to displaced workers.
We authorized funding for the development of the biotechnology industry through the University of Hawaii’s John A. Burns School of Medicine. And we appropriated additional funds for increased tourism marketing, from which we now reap the benefits of increased visitor counts.
The issues with long-term impact or that demanded broad public input were deferred until this Regular Session. In this regard, your Majority believes that the best thing we can do for Hawaii is to exact control over those forces influencing our economic fortunes.
We will continue to improve the efficiency of government. We will invest aggressively but prudently in a high-quality public education system. And we will work harder to encourage new economic initiatives, and to provide regulatory and tax relief to businesses.
Virtually every successful strategy engaged to attract business or investment emphasizes the quality of the educational system as a key factor. Your Majority will promote decentralization of the public school system. We must transform its system of governance—not by creating additional political structures, but by dividing the system into individual learning complexes that will monitor a student’s performance from pre-school until high school graduation.
Additionally, we will partner with Kamehameha Schools to run one or more charter schools in areas of our state with a predominantly Hawaiian population. We will allow private schools to receive special purpose revenue bond financing authority to assist them in improving their facilities. We believe that this will support the growing industry of education. We all benefit from a strong educational system.
The Joint House-Senate Investigative Committee on the Felix Consent Decree has made all of us painfully aware of the shortcomings of delivering services to challenged students desiring a public education. Your Majority supports that committee's efforts in opening the case to public scrutiny.
The people of Hawaii have the fundamental right to know how, where, and why their monies are spent in bringing Hawaii into compliance with the federal mandate. We will continue the committee’s good work.
Energy is a fundamental currency in any economy, and Hawaii is far too dependent upon imported fossil fuels. The state of energy research is moving rapidly toward renewable resources like hydrogen, as well as cost-saving fuel cells. Last week, the University of Hawaii announced its plans to open a hydrogen fuel cell research facility on Oahu in partnership with others.
The Hydrogen Economy is here, and Hawaii can lead the nation in adapting this exciting technology to meet our energy needs and reduce our reliance upon fossil fuels. This will save businesses and families significant money on their electric bills, and create new jobs and industries.
There are other issues to address as well, Mr. Speaker. Last year, the House passed onto the Senate a campaign finance reform bill restricting the influence of big money in political campaigns. But that is not enough. We must also ensure firm sanctions and penalties for those officials who breach the public trust. Mr. Speaker, this will be corrected.
Based on what we learned from Florida’s presidential vote count, we must ensure the integrity of our electoral process if we wish people to maintain confidence in our system of democracy. Mr. Speaker, we will support an automatic vote recount in close elections.
Health, both individual and public, is not a marketable commodity sold to the highest bidder. Reasonable and affordable access to prescription drugs for all residents should be a minimum standard of care. No caring society should ever allow its people the hard choice between paying the mortgage or purchasing necessary medicines. Your Majority will support legislation that firmly addresses the high cost of prescription medicines in a manner that allows our residents, and especially our seniors, to live with dignity.
There was a time not so long ago, Mr. Speaker, that Hawaii’s system of ensuring near-universal health care coverage to its residents provided the model for the rest of the nation, and was in fact the inspiration for the aborted attempt to institute nationwide coverage. However, as the health care industry evolved and consolidated over the last decade, the time has arrived for Hawaii to reconsider its own model of employer-mandated coverage.
Your Majority will support a comprehensive review of the Hawaii Pre-Paid Health Care Act of 1974 and its mandated services. In so doing, be assured that we do not question its worthy intentions. However, our policies must reflect the present environment in which health care is delivered and paid for.
While nearly everyone agrees that government must be more efficient, how that efficiency is achieved remains subject to contention. What some see as wasteful pork-barrel spending, others view as an essential government service. We propose that we seek out common ground, and remove politics from determining what programs constitute an essential component of our core mission in serving the people of Hawaii.
Your Majority proposes a commission, modeled after the federal base-closing commission of the immediate post-Cold War era. This commission will be charged with classifying all state programs against the overall state general plan as either essential or non-essential to the state’s mission.
Those identified as non-essential will further be ranked in terms of priority, and the commission shall then recommend whether those programs shall be modified or eliminated.
Once its determinations are made, its proposals shall be submitted to the Legislature for approval or disapproval. Government must serve all the people--not just those who serve in government.
We must also maintain fiscal discipline, Mr. Speaker, in our spending on capital improvement projects. Although we support an increase for educational infrastructure improvement and development, we do not believe that incurring an additional $1 billion in debt is fiscally responsible. The Legislature has approved over $21 billion in capital improvement projects since 1989, yet as of November 30, 2001, over $6 billion of that total is "backlogged." Further, much of that has yet to be either released or allotted. Mr. Speaker, your Majority sees no purpose in adding to that amount of capital improvement projects, which has been either slowed or stalled.
Our economic fortunes will be equally impacted, Mr. Speaker, by those things that we choose not to do. We will not second-guess previous actions that were specifically enacted to bolster the economy.
We will implement the final year of our reduction in personal income taxes. We will maintain our schedule of ending the pyramiding of the general excise tax on business services.
We will ensure the continued integrity of the Hurricane Relief Fund, because it is not a question of if, but when a hurricane will strike.
And finally, we will carefully examine all special and revolving fund surpluses.
There are no concoctions that will immediately provide a cure to what ails us, but when we address our state’s situation in honest terms, we have already taken the first step toward finding real and practical solutions to our problems. As I stated earlier, we cannot change unless we survive, but we cannot survive unless we change.
With determination, unity of purpose, and integrity, we can ensure our return to prosperity, provide economic sustainability, and create opportunity for all who love Hawaii and call our islands home.