Remarks by the Senate President-Opening of Hawaii’s 22nd Legislature

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“Robert Bunda Image”

Gov. Lingle, Lt. Governor and Mrs. Aiona, Chief Justice Moon, Mayor Harris, Mayor Kim, Mayor Arakawa, Mayor Baptiste, Congressman Abercrombie, Congressman Case, Former Governor and Mrs. Ariyoshi, Mrs. Waihee, Admiral Doran, Lt. General Polk, Major General Lowe, Colonel Anderson, esteemed colleagues, honored guests, ladies and gentlemen:


Aloha and welcome to the beginning of the 2003 Legislative Session.

We convene the 22nd Hawaii State Legislature in an environment that is unfamiliar to us. We have a new chief executive, Gov. Lingle, an entirely new cabinet, and, I expect, ambitious new goals and priorities for the administration. We in the Senate look forward to working with the governor and her administration in serving the people of Hawaii and in building a stronger, more prosperous community.

We face uncertainties presented by a struggling national economy and the potential impact of open military conflict on the global front. Meanwhile, it seems we’re facing the same fiscal realities that have dogged us for so long.

Although our current economic condition may look bleak, I believe that it’s really an opportunity to restructure the way government does business and to restore public confidence in our institutions, or, as some like to call it, a new beginning.

This means that we must be bold, that we shouldn’t be afraid to offer proposals that may seem too daring or far-reaching. We mustn’t hesitate to share ideas, to suggest the seemingly impossible, to resurrect discarded notions, or to seek new ways of doing what we’ve always done. I would argue that it’s our obligation as legislators to do so, and I know the Senate, with the decisive leadership of our committee chairs, will be at the forefront of these efforts.

The biggest and most immediate hurdle we face this session is, of course, balancing the state budget. The previous governor submitted a budget that called for taking most of the money in the Hurricane Relief Fund, despite the Senate’s consistent and solid opposition to that plan.

We in the Senate are fully aware that we must find creative ways to cut spending and increase revenues to make up the multi-million-dollar shortfall. With the leadership of Ways and Means Chair Brian Taniguchi, the collective experience of veteran legislators, and the fresh ideas of new Senators, I believe we’ll find a way. And we’ll do so without sacrificing vital public services or reneging on our past promises.

Clearly, our economic problems are largely the result of forces beyond our shores. We will not find a solution to our own budget woes by spending cuts and fiscal maneuvering alone. But we have an opportunity to make changes to stimulate business growth and private sector job creation if we are willing to look beyond the traditional, beyond the tried-and-true.

For example, the Legislature’s unprecedented offer of tax credits for hotel construction and renovation was vetoed by the governor last year. The Legislature agreed that tax credits can provide significant economic stimulation and this year we’ll have an opportunity to submit them to a governor who has publicly expressed her support for such incentives.

It is also imperative that we grow our economy from its roots. We must bolster our support for agriculture, a sizable industry that has often been dismissed out-of-hand by skeptics. Agriculture is a $500-million contributor to Hawaii’s economy and employs 12,000 people. It keeps our land open and green, thereby supporting tourism and the preservation of our natural resources. It also provides the security of a local food supply in the event of shipping interruptions or an escalation in the price of imported produce.

The Legislature has been vigorous in supporting the agricultural industry. During the past two years, we have appropriated nearly $26 million for infrastructure, mostly for improvements to irrigation systems across the state. The Senate Committee on Water, Land, and Agriculture, under the direction of Chair Lorraine Inouye, will be exploring ways to take agriculture to a new level.

To do this, we must resolve water disputes. We must encourage the large landowners, including the State, to put agricultural land into long-term production, and conversely, discourage leaving productive land fallow. We must develop local and overseas markets for our commodities. More aggressive, broader marketing initiatives could give our farmers the muscle they need to find new markets for their products.

We also have an opportunity to further bolster the sports industry. The thousands of runners who come to Hawaii for the Honolulu Marathon, the out-of-state fans who come for the NFL Pro Bowl, and the countless thousands who participate in dozens of events throughout the year represent a significant boost to our visitor industry.

Tourism Chair Donna Mercado Kim, Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, and I recently visited Invesco Field in Denver. We saw how a public-private partnership can develop a successful, world-class sports center. We returned with ideas on how we can adopt a similar plan to replace our aging Aloha Stadium so it can accommodate larger, more profitable events.

As with other industries, government must provide the investment in infrastructure that, in turn, supports growth. Our airports and harbors are vital links to the global economy and must be regarded as the major investment opportunities they really are.

We must ensure that our harbors are capable of accommodating Hawaii’s growing cruise ship industry. And that will require upgrades to piers and facilities. We’ll count on the vision of Transportation Chair Cal Kawamoto for his support.

In this same vein, as a commuter from Wahiawa who finds endless frustration in our traffic gridlock, I believe it’s time we dusted off our plans for a light-rail, mass transit system. It could link central points on Oahu with the City’s proposed plans for urban Honolulu. Not only will mass transit speed the movement of people and ease traffic, but it will create construction jobs, develop new business centers at key terminals, and provoke us into rethinking the way we live and work, much like the people of great cities around the world.

Senator Inouye and Congressman Abercrombie have both expressed their willingness to go to bat for us in securing the money to underwrite such a system, and those of us in the Legislature must be willing to revisit this proposal to break the gridlock of indecision. If we fail, we will surely choke on the mounting traffic problems of a growing population.

Up to this point, my emphasis has been on the economy, because I believe we desperately need the economic growth that will underwrite the public services that sustain our quality of life. In keeping with that theme, we must also have the political will to tackle the very serious drug problem that is infecting our society.

We can consider any number of ideas. But let us give law enforcement officials the tools and resources they need to win the war against drugs and drug pushers. They have recommended a secure, long-term treatment facility for drug offenders. This is an idea we should definitely consider.

We can also help school administrators and teachers tackle the drug problems of their students, before they pass the point of no return. New Orleans, for example, is attempting to combat drug abuse by screening, detection, and subsequent treatment during the formative and vulnerable adolescent years using mandatory drug testing. We can introduce a pilot drug-testing program for students, with appropriate and consistent solutions and penalties to show that we mean business. We need to take steps to protect our children in the schools and punish those who try to corrupt them or, even worse, cost them their very lives.

We should bring the provisions of Chapter 19, the Department of Education’s disciplinary code, in line with the State’s penal code, to give consistency to school discipline. We should also enable educators to be made aware of the criminal histories of their students, information that is now denied them because of statutory restrictions. There are many more ways to make our schools and neighborhoods safer, but I offer these in the hope that others will bring their own suggestions to the table.

While many of our economic and social problems persist, changes in the composition of the House and Senate and in the Executive Chambers should bring about new opportunities for us to collaborate on finding solutions to the concerns we all share, concerns that rise above party or creed. The people of Hawaii deserve no less.

In my opening day address two years ago, I urged this body to welcome the opportunity for change. I am not a prophet but the words I spoke then seem even more appropriate today. Our real decision as legislators, I said, is whether we spend time resisting change, or do we embrace new ideas and make them our own tools for building a better Hawaii. Last year, I advocated better control of the budget process and cited the need to regain command over special funds in particular. This year, we have a governor who has promised to do this very thing as part of a new beginning. I say great. Let’s do it. I intend to advocate a true spirit of cooperation and collaboration. But we do not intend to sacrifice common sense solutions in our quest for consensus.

The Legislature and the community as a whole have traditionally relied on consensus for making our decisions. While this method succeeds in resolving many problems, the absence of consensus and decisive leadership can sometimes stymie progress.

Business and government leaders knew 40 years ago that the sugar and pineapple industries were dying. They couldn’t reach agreement on what they should do, so the agricultural industry lost the momentum and collective power it has never regained. Over the years, we have completed nearly 150 studies on various mass transit systems but have not been able to reach consensus on a single choice. It is our duty as legislators, as public officials, to act decisively, thereby demonstrating true leadership as well as a passionate and firm belief in our ability to revitalize our economy.

In closing, let me say this. Gov. Lingle, the members of the Senate make this pledge to you and your new administration: We promise open and honest communication. But we are not without our own agenda for change. We are not blind to the needs of the people who elected us. And we are not without a will of our own to set a record of achievement that is responsive to the will of the people.

This Senate, all twenty and five of us, stands ready to work hand in hand with the House and with the new administration, to effect the highest level of positive change for all the people of Hawaii.

Aloha and mahalo.