Regardless of the challenges lawmakers face as the start of their new session looms on Wednesday, whatever information they may be lacking, however late they got their own offices organized, that’s all the time they get to do their work each year.
This ought to be a really substantive session, with a new administration coming in, presumably with ideas about reordering government around its own priorities. Part of that restructuring will have to be about boosting bureaucratic efficiencies, since state revenue projections show a nearly $800 million gap between money coming in and what business-as-usual would cost over the next two years.
Closing that gap is the central imperative of this session. But lawmakers can’t hope to finish Job One until Gov. Neil Abercrombie comes in with his own budgetary numbers, sometime in March, setting the conventional timetable behind by weeks. They need to be part of the preliminary budget talks from the start in order to represent their constituents’ interests at the earliest stages.
That said, lawmakers have other business they can tackle. The early weeks of the session should include work on legislation oriented more around policy than balancing the state checkbook. Here are a few concerns:
» Board of Education — Lawmakers must have an early and open discussion over various strategies for transitioning from an elected to an appointed school board, given the constitutional amendment voters approved in November. The mission should be to strike a balance: The governor needs discretion to select leadership to carry out his educational program, without the board serving simply at his pleasure. Further, the appointment process should ensure that all the islands receive adequate representation.
» Civil unions — This civil rights provision, giving all access to the various legal protections the state provides through marriage, should be addressed early. In past sessions the contentious issue has been postponed so that budgetary battles could be engaged first; that’s not an option this time, and lawmakers should not postpone civil unions for another year.
» Cabinet appointments — The new Senate should start work promptly on a robust vetting of Abercrombie’s nominees to fill top departmental posts. The governor has shown willingness to seek people from a wide circle of community agencies and businesses; now the public deserves the confidence that they are up to the job. Senators should give their resumes a careful review.
» Sentencing reform — Even without the budgetary numbers in hand, the need to address the shortage of space for in-state incarceration of felons is clear. Reducing prison population through a change in corrections policy is a necessary approach that’s possible only if changes in how those guilty of nonviolent crimes are treated. Revisiting the state’s "three strikes" law would be wise, given that there’s no room to accommodate a booming population that the extended sentences produce.
» Environmental laws — Efforts to streamline the state’s onerous environmental review process will be crucial as Hawaii grapples with rail construction and redevelopment on Oahu, and with agricultural, energy and other land-use questions statewide. Legislation ran aground last year when a compromise over which projects should be exempted could not be reached. Another bite at this apple can take place this year but, again, work needs to begin before attention turns to budget-making.
Lawmakers have many other boxes to check on this year’s list of chores, including the need to take another look at ways to make the tax code fairer and more productive for Hawaii’s small businesses. On the revenue side, the additional sunsetting of tax exemptions already proposed deserves a careful look. But work on these matters will have to be done in concert with budget negotiations, putting off hope for progress until late March.
If they use their time well this year, the mark of success will be a state government in which limited funds cover services the state needs most — with public health and safety, social services for the most needy and education high on the list.
At least modest advances should be made toward rebuilding government. What’s needed is an eye toward efficiency and partnerships with the private sector, to get the most from tax dollars that are sure to be lagging for a long time to come.
The clock starts Wednesday, with something like 480 hours on it. Tick-tock.