Monday, August 31, 2015         

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Dear Gov. Abercrombie ...

There's no lack of urgent issues facing Hawaii's new governor, who said he'd be ready to roll from Day 1. Here are what some key leaders want him to work on.

LAST UPDATED: 11:19 p.m. HST, Dec 7, 2010


» The Rev. Bob Nakata is past president of FACE (Faith Action for Community Equity) and continues to work with the organization. The credit on his commentary below says he is still the group's president. FACE's new president is the Rev. Samuel L. Domingo.


Act quickly on gift of learning in schools

By Wil Okabe

Hawaii today stands on the threshold of a new day, perhaps even a new era, under your leadership as our new governor who was attracted from New York to attend the University of Hawaii as a graduate student, with your first semester occurring one month after statehood.

So it is fitting that we stand with you today, a half-century later, answering a new call for change in our state that will rival those days following statehood in 1959. This time, we are guided by your pledge to "make investments in our people and families-in their health and education ... "

The call for change began with your election, which has been buoyed by the people's historic choice to allow you, as our seventh governor, to appoint members to the Board of Education and to have this new group get to work as soon as possible. We encourage you to move quickly, and we stand ready to help.

The list of items on education's agenda is much too long to address in this letter, but the start of your term presents an opportunity to help all of our community to begin a new journey down the path of education reform. In a matter of weeks, the state Legislature will begin its new session. We urge you to reaffirm your commitment to education by having your first bills introduced by your administration articulate proposals that repositions education as our state's top priority -- one that will never again be placed on furlough. We can move toward that goal by making a commitment that:

» Schools are funded adequately by sustained revenues that are sufficient enough to meet the education needs of today's diverse student demographics and ever-changing work environment.

» Class sizes are small and schools are safe and orderly so students can learn.

» Schools have up-to-date technology and resource materials.

» Every child has the opportunity to learn and achieve.

The availability of resources and tools is directly connected to student success. If we expect students to be successful beyond high school, we need to provide them with programs and support that meet their individual needs. For instance, we know that low-performing schools and students would benefit greatly from specialized curricula and additional resources.

There are no easy answers or quick cure-alls. But we need to embrace proven solutions like smaller class sizes and strong support for the professional development of teachers. In addition, a child is more than a test score and raising scores is not synonymous with good education. There will be more meaningful student achievement if we have a stronger, more coherent curriculum that spans the grades kindergarten through 12th grade.

Educational research gives us new insights about how student learning takes place. Technology offers us new ways to teach and learn. The challenge is to apply the research and use the technology to make our classrooms relevant to the world. This will help to support and advance student learning and to prepare them for college and careers today and tomorrow.

You once recalled to Waipahu students, parents and educators something your high school English teacher told your class, and you called it the "greatest thing that happened" in your life. Your teacher said: "I am about to enrich your lives far beyond your ability to ever repay me."

You went on to say he was correct because he gave your class the gift of learning, the opportunity to expand your minds, and the belief that you could accomplish things you may not have imagined.

Hawaii's teachers share the priceless gift of learning every day in classrooms across the state, but all too often under the most difficult circumstances and with inadequate resources. We must never forget the wisdom of your teacher and never again lose sight of education's gift to our children and society.

Fight education's special interests

By Randall Roth

Your resolve to be the education governor is about to be tested. If you fail, tens of thousands of children will never know what it is like to have an opportunity for an exceptional education.

Your campaign literature about decentralizing the system was right on, and your declared willingness to accept systemwide accountability is encouraging. But the buck will stop at your desk only if you are free to assemble a school board that shares your overarching vision. And that is not likely to happen if you can select only from someone else's short list of candidates.

How could the public hold you accountable for results if the school board were to pursue its own separate agenda?

We already know what happens in a public-school system in which no one can be held accountable. When push comes to shove, special interests always prevail over those of the children. We've seen that time and again, most recently in the horrific form of Furlough Fridays.

The special interests that have long dominated public education want now to limit your options in selecting members of the school board. They say they want "checks and balances," but what they really want is to maintain their current level of power.

The Legislature will soon decide whether to limit you to someone else's short list of candidates. If you do not take a firm stand in opposing such a limitation, the Legislature will undoubtedly side with the special interests yet again, and the system will continue to lack accountability.

You won the primary and general elections by overwhelming margins. That gives you a mandate to act boldly. You also have exceptional oratory skills. Use your bully pulpit to explain that accountability is possible only if you are given a free hand in selecting school board members.

To make the issue more concrete, identify individuals you would want to appoint to the school board. Such an approach might have political risks, but it could engage the public and create an environment where the Legislature has no viable option other than to follow your lead.

Special interests would resist, but they are no match for an informed public and a courageous leader. The time has come to put the children's interests first.

A fair tax code is the best policy

By Lowell Kalapa

So what does one advise the new governor when it comes to evaluating tax policy?

Perhaps he can take a cue from the principles of the Rotary "Four-Way Test" which starts with: "Is it the truth?"

In the case of tax policy, is a proposal clearly understood so that a taxpayer knows what is being taxed and that the tax requirement is simple enough with which to comply. The law should not be so vague and convoluted that the taxpayer has a difficult time calculating and computing the tax.

The second Rotary test is "Is it fair?" There is no other principle that is as important than that the tax be fair, treating people in similar situations equally while recognizing that those in unequal situations should pay their share according to their capacity to pay. Granting special treatment to some taxpayers with either tax credits or tax exemptions merely erodes the tax base, putting pressure to raise the tax rate on other taxpayers not so favored. This is called tax shifting where the tax law favors one taxpayer over another, producing confusion and the illusion that taxes are being cut.

The third Rotary test is that: "It creates good will." In the case of tax policy that means that the tax should be efficient, costing little to administer and to comply with relative to the amount of money it produces. It also means that the tax system has little effect on the economy.

Taxpayers should make decisions based on financial consequences and not the tax consequences. This, in turn, creates good will toward the tax system and assures taxpayer compliance.

The fourth Rotary test: "Is it beneficial for all concerned?" In this case it should be remembered that a good tax system exists solely to raise revenues to run the government that its people want. While there will always be special interest groups, elected leaders must remember that our government is a government of the people and a government for the people. Elected officials must remember that government cannot afford to be all things to all people and that the taxes people are asked to pay should be used for programs and services that benefit the majority of the people. Sometimes that means not providing everything that constituents demand as someone will have to pay for those added services.

Finally, while elected officials like to believe things pay taxes, such as businesses, hotels and stores, in the end only people pay taxes.

Trim government, taxes and spending

By Jamie Story

Congratulations on your election as leader of our great state. You are taking office at a turning point in Hawaii, one in which we can allow families and businesses to flourish by reducing the burdens placed on them by government, or can continue to leave government in the hands of unions and special interests, at the expense of our keiki. I prefer the first choice.

Hawaii has long had one of the highest tax burdens in the nation, and tax hikes passed by the state Legislature every year only worsen our position. We ask you, as governor, to propose a budget that reduces state government to a sustainable size, free of pork spending and ineffective programs. We have identified billions of dollars of waste in our annual Hawaii Pork Report, which is a good place to start. Furthermore, our launch last week of has already allowed thousands of Hawaii citizens to investigate how their tax dollars are being spent, and they are using it to identify wasteful spending as we speak. We hope you'll make use of these valuable tools.

Cutting wasteful spending is not enough, however. Our state Legislature remains the only one in the country not to use fiscal notes in determining the costs of proposed legislation. This is like going shopping without looking at the price tags -- with someone else's money. We cannot establish firm financial footing on top of such a haphazard foundation. Please employ your leadership to ensure our Legislature adopts a more responsible and transparent budgeting process.

Finally, as chief executive, you cannot afford to ignore the most dangerous financial threat looming over our state. The government employee pension crisis in Hawaii has reached epic proportions, with $9 billion in unfunded liabilities and another $10 billion in unfunded future health care costs (as reported by the Star-Advertiser). Per capita, we rank second-highest in the nation in both categories, with each of our keiki already liable for $7,700 in unfunded pension costs alone. We ask you to make solving this crisis a top priority in 2011.

Best wishes in your new role, and please don't hesitate to enlist our assistance on any of the tough policy decisions you will undoubtedly face. Meanwhile, the Grassroot Institute will continue our fight for smaller, more accountable government in Hawaii.

Set targets to grow local agriculture

By Robert Harris

Congratulations on being elected governor! Now here is a demand: Please generate a billion dollars in new sales for our businesses, stimulate $300 million in new household earnings, create more than 14,000 new jobs with living wages, and pump $39 million in new tax revenues into our state coffers.

And, while you're at it, can you improve Hawaii's nutrition, reduce Hawaii's CO2 emissions, and preserve the open spaces that grace our state?

Sound audacious? Perhaps. But achievable. Part of the solution, according to a 2008 state Department of Agriculture report, is for Hawaii to grow more of our own food. Boost local food production just 10 percent and you'll create 2,300 new jobs and pump hundreds of millions into our markets. We can keep much of our $3 billion of hard-earned dollars here in Hawaii, rather than sending it overseas every year to buy food.

Of course, there are hurdles to expanding food self-sufficiency in Hawaii. But your leadership could light the way. Consider setting progressive standards for food self-sufficiency by defined dates: say 20 percent of our consumption grown locally by 2020, 30 percent by 2030, 50 percent by 2040. This concept helped invigorate Hawaii's clean energy industry. Hawaii's Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards were a key part in starting the clean energy movement. Tangible goals with metrics that define success effectively brought previously bickering parties together to solve Hawaii's dependence on foreign oil.

In order to ensure our food self-sufficiency standards are met, and don't simply become ignored, we could connect one of the biggest obstacles -- development of prime farmland -- to the sustainability standards. If Hawaii doesn't achieve our food self-sufficiency standards, then we'd stop permitting large, new developments on prime farmland.

Just 50 years ago half our food was produced locally. Let's return to that level of self-sufficiency throughstandards that encourage collaboration among landowners, farmers and the state.

Standards alone are not a panacea. But, let's begin. Combined with tax incentives, technical assistance and innovative financing options, your administration could make food security a perfect complement to our energy security agenda. You campaigned on the promise of an agricultural renaissance.

Set the goal, bring the parties to the table and reap the just desserts of accomplishing a historic legacy for a more self-sufficient Hawaii.

Collaborate to help the homeless

By the Rev. Bob Nakata

Your energy, optimism, vision and commitment to social justice have brought you to the governorship. All of those attributes and more will be tested as you deal with the lack of affordable housing and increasing homelessness in a time of diminished government revenues. It will be a daunting challenge to successfully address these two issues.

You sounded several hopeful notes which will help a lot. You talked of private-public partnership, collaborations, getting organizations and agencies out of their silos, and, most importantly, of leadership. The severity of the crises in affordable rental housing and homelessness has pushed many in Hawaii to solutions that are stopgap, that are not real solutions but only coping mechanisms until times get better. Safe zones and laws to confine the homeless to certain areas and out of others are necessary but do not address homelessness.

Better coordination among landlords and service agencies has worked in some mainland cities such as Seattle to address homelessness. The recently formed Urban Caucus of State Legislators, City Council members, state, county and private agencies, including Realtors and landlords in Honolulu led by Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, offers hope and should be supported and encouraged by you on a statewide basis.

Honolulu voters just passed a City Charter amendment creating a Housing Office in the city, basically to facilitate the creation of affordable rental housing, which is the best answer for homelessness. It could be a repository of knowledge of what funding is available for affordable housing and what programs are available. It could help developers to efficiently navigate the planning and permitting to create such housing. The creation of such an office now makes it possible for county, state and federal coordination for creating and preserving affordable housing like Kukui Gardens.

Creating and encouraging these cooperative and collaborative efforts to use limited resources effectively and efficiently can help to build the political will and leadership to pursue greater financial resources to address these problems, even in tough economic times, but certainly when and as the economy recovers.

I look forward to your governorship with hope and anticipation. I see you as a person of faith, a social justice advocate, and I offer my support in your efforts to create a better and more just Hawaii.

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