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Time to buckle down

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Now that Hawaii finally has closed the book on a difficult year, it’s tempting to anticipate that 2011 will bring a long-awaited respite.

Tourism is recovering, as are housing prices. Tax coffers are filling up again. The jobless rate, already lower than the national average, may tick downward in the coming months, if projections for the construction industry and other employers are borne out.

But while there may be encouraging signs, we’re not out of the woods. At both city and state levels, the new year promises new challenges that won’t allow policymakers to slack off on austerity pledges.

For starters, the fiscal support provided by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will be on the wane before long. Unlike many states, Hawaii budgeted its stimulus funds to last over a longer term, but that will come to an end in 2012; a little more than half of the $1.6 billion has been spent, say the state officials who are tracking the money. And in general, with political pressure mounting to cut the deficit spending in Congress, all manner of federal grants will be harder to come by.

So Gov. Neil Abercrombie will have to make good on his pledge — sooner rather than later — to reorder spending priorities. Budgets are sure to be tight, and Hawaii won’t reap the fruits of an optimum economic upswing without actively laying the groundwork for long-term fiscal health, with an emphasis on efficient, conservative spending practices.

There are other opportunities for a proactive approach to public policy. For example, education reform presents great potential for growth. To begin with, the state has developed an encouragingly ambitious blueprint for using its Race to the Top grant money, part of the stimulus program. Now the state Department of Education must deploy its allotment of $75 million to produce the innovative and responsive public school system the state needs — and the public demands — if its children are to be prepared for employment in the new economy.

An even more critical task awaits the Legislature in bettering public schools: Lawmakers must decide how the conversion to an appointed school board, an overhaul that voters authorized in the last election, should proceed. The governor’s favored proposal — to allow him full discretion to appoint members — seems the most sensible, as long as board members serve for staggered terms and cannot be dismissed by executive whim.

Fiscal challenges await the University of Hawaii as well, and efforts to upgrade facilities represent a wise investment for education as well as a needed spur for the construction industry. On a related front, UH administrators need to guide the football program through its transition toward the potentially more lucrative alliance with the Mountain West Conference.

At Honolulu Hale, the most pressing concerns are to close any residual budgetary gaps and especially to move ahead with the Honolulu fixed-rail transit system, a long-overdue addition to city infrastructure. New Mayor Peter Carlisle, like his predecessor, must take an active and visible role. He needs to ride herd on the creation of a transit authority and help to ensure that the first phases of the rail project are executed effectively and with transparency.

And all the state’s leadership, in both the public and private sectors, needs to continue the momentum generated by the Lingle administration to reduce Hawaii’s reliance on imported fossil fuels. If it remains a top priority, we can establish Hawaii as a leader in the renewable energy industry.

In November, Honolulu will have its brightest spotlight on the world stage as host of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference; seeing that this is remembered as a success must be an all-consuming concern for the new administrations and business leaders.

If anything, 2011 may be even more challenging than the recessionary years past, but it should be an energizing rather than dispiriting time. Clearly, only an energetic, active approach to a year offering such potential for growth can yield the kind of progress Hawaii needs to thrive again.

 

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