Senate President: 2013 Session Will Test Our Courage, Willingness to Change

Senate President Donna Mercado Kim presents opening day remarks on January 16, 2013 (Photo by Mel Ah Ching)
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Senate President Donna Mercado Kim presents opening day remarks on January 16, 2013 (Photo by Mel Ah Ching)

Donna Mercado Kim is the President of the Hawaii State Senate. These are her Opening Day Remarks made on January 16, 2013, the opening day of the legislative session, in the Senate Chambers.

Aloha. It is my distinct honor and pleasure to welcome you to the Senate’s opening session of the 27th Legislature. It’s heartwarming to see so many familiar faces, but this year begins with several newcomers to the Senate:

  • Representing Kahului and Wailuku is Gil Keith-Agaran
  • From Ka‘u and Puna comes Russell Ruderman …
  • And from Windward Oahu and East Honolulu is Laura Thielen.

Please join me in welcoming them to these chambers.

Let’s also acknowledge the lone voice of the minority, Senator Sam Slom.

While he’s but one strong, he’s been a devoted voice for his party and he’s “still here.”

I’ll confess that it’s a very humbling experience to stand before you this morning.

I grew up a stone’s throw from this building, in Kalihi-Palama, as one of five kids in a poor working-class family.  Like many of you, both my parents worked and struggled to keep food on the table, and a roof over our heads.  Given those modest beginnings, never could I have imagined that I would someday be standing before you as Senate President.

I thank you, colleagues, for this tremendous privilege.

The Hawaii of our childhood was a lot different than it is today:

We had a smaller population, an economy still largely dependent on agriculture,

no freeways, no traffic congestion, fewer of the social ills that we now see,

and a smaller, and no doubt simpler, government.

We were blessed with a strong spirit of community.  We took care of each other.  As kids, we played with tops, bean bags, and marbles, in the streets with friends from the neighborhood.  We walked to school together and we were unburdened by the concerns that we worry about these days.

Places like Palama Settlement and my alma mater, Farrington High School, shaped our lives and prepared us to be responsible adults and leaders.

Then there was that special teacher, aunt, or uncle who mentored and influenced our lives.

For me, it was Kumu Hula Aunty Maiki Aiu, who instilled in me the traditional Hawaiian core values of aloha, lokahi (harmony), kuleana (responsibility) and  »ha‘a ha‘a (humility).

Through hula she taught me discipline, respect, hard work, and grace.

These values are the foundation of our kupuna that has been handed down from generation to generation.

Mahalo Senator Solomon and the Beamer-Solomon halau for perpetuating this legacy.

While we may not have realized it at the time, the incredible changes that came with the Democratic revolution of 1954, statehood a few years later, and the socio-economic evolution that followed statehood, were the catalysts that built the foundation for much of the work we have continued to build upon to this day.  But like any structure, no matter how good the initial foundation,  it still requires upkeep and constant care.

The last recession may have weakened our foundation, so now is the time for reassessment and reinforcement.

Beyond our personal hopes and wishes, I speak of what the Legislature has done to further the progress of our people:

in our public education system … in the growth of charter schools … in the University of Hawaii.…

Under Consumer Protection Chair Roz Baker’s work for health insurance coverage for individuals and families…

… in laws that give protections to workers, guided by Judiciary and Labor Chair Clayton Hee …

working for services that help our children and kupuna and those unable to help themselves,under the watch of Human Services Chair Suzanne Chun Oakland, …

These, and so many other programs and services that enrich our lives and contribute to our quality of life. We can and must continue.

After several years of belt-tightening, we’re greeting this session with a rosier economic outlook.  The Council on Revenues has projected that tax revenues will increase by five percent this year, indications that the economy continues to improve.

Our visitor industry remains strong, and other industries like construction are poised to make a comeback.

Tourism deserves a special mention.  The visitor industry continues to be a driving force for the economy, helping to power our recovery.

Last year, tourism brought 2 billion dollars more to the economy over the year before.  More than 166,000 jobs are supported by tourism, and its indirect impact is just as far-reaching.

Our island visitor bureaus, our worldwide marketing partners, and the Hawaii Tourism Authority, under the leadership of Mike McCartney and board chair Ron Williams, deserve our applause for these accomplishments.

The Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit demonstrated that Hawaii has a global presence.  Our host culture can teach, touch, bridge, and inspire those who embrace Hawaii and our people.  Hawaiian music and dance transcend differences in race, nationality, or language.  Aunty Maiki Aiu’s passion to preserve and perpetuate this aspect of Hawaiian culture inspired me and that’s why I have long advocated the establishment of a museum/center of Hawaiian music and dance.  An ideal location would be atop the Hawaii Convention Center. What better place to share the heart and soul of our host culture with residents and visitors alike.  Tourism and Hawaiian Affairs Chair Brickwood Galuteria and I challenge the Hawaii Tourism Authority and the Office of Hawaiian Affairs to work together to make it happen.

But with the strong visitor numbers and prospect of more revenues, and what I’d term “pent-up demand” to restore the budget cuts we’ve had to make, it might be tempting and politically popular for us to return to the spending patterns of more prosperous times.  We should proceed with caution.  After all, the salary cuts for state employees will expire this year.  The administration is negotiating new labor agreements with the public employee unions and this will be a major cost item in the budget.

Nationally, the Presidential campaign and Congressional wrangling over the federal budget reflect great divisions in our nation.  Here at home, we face monumental changes in politics.  The death of our senior Senator Dan Inouye which we are still mourning and the retirement of beloved Senator Daniel Akaka have triggered a ripple effect that will have an impact on our State.

We still have lingering fiscal concerns and potential new ones, among them possible cutbacks in federal funding, and many are looking to the state to make up the difference.  Add to this the backlog of repair and maintenance needs for schools, parks, public housing, state buildings, and our infrastructure.  There are initiatives to establish a state-run early education program, a new prison, and more affordable housing, as well as proposals for more grants-in-aid and other public support.

Despite all of these demands, and the anticipation of better economic times, I hope, first and foremost, that there will be NO new tax burdens thrust upon our citizens … that we will not automatically open the taxpayers’ pocketbooks to every budget request, every new proposal, every capital improvement project.

I am not saying that we should not consider new initiatives.  After all, the Legislature is a forum for new ideas, new ways of doing things to better our quality of life.  But as we weigh their merits, let’s also look at the merits of what we already have.  Reevaluating and reassessing what we have in place may not be sexy or innovative, but these must be done if we are to achieve our purposes more efficiently and effectively than we have been.

While we consider early childhood education proposals, it’ s imperative that we resolve our problems with the teachers’ contract, school bus services, and the many challenges facing the Department of Education and our charter schools.  To help resolve these and other cost items, I call upon the administration to work with us to eliminate salary overpayments to state workers and abuses in overtime and sick leave. These translate into millions of dollars.  Let’s use these savings and the additional revenues forecast by the Council on Revenues to accelerate fixing our schools, funding kupuna care, reducing the unfunded liability of the state pension system, and repairing our roads and aging infrastructure.

The collapse of the Farrington High School’s auditorium-roof was a loud warning, that we need to quickly assess the structural soundness of our aging facilities.  Fortunately no one was injured, but we may not be so lucky the next time.

Likewise, we mustn’t create or reinstitute public programs without a thorough examination of their long-term obligations.  If we authorize new positions, what are the long-term financial obligations with regard to rising labor, pension, and health care costs?  For every new building, how much will it cost to operate, maintain, and eventually repair or replace?  Those costs should be factored into our five-year balanced budget requirement and we’ll look to Ways and Means Chair David Ige and Vice Chair Michelle Kidani to help us accomplish this.

The author Richard Schickel wrote, “The law of unintended consequences pushes us ceaselessly through the years, permitting no pause for perspective.”  With that thought in mind, we should pause to review the laws we have on the books.  Are they working?  Are they serving their intended purpose or are they barriers?

The Legislative Auditor—I’d be remiss in not acknowledging the outstanding work of Marion Higa, who’s an icon and who we wish well in her retirement —

the Auditor is only able to evaluate a fraction of our innumerable  public programs.

The “Report on the Implementation of State Auditor’s 2008 Recommendations” was released last February.

It stated that less than one-third of the 2008 recommendations have been implemented.

We could definitely do better in acting on the Auditor’s recommendations, and not wait until a  problem is reported by the news media or brought to our attention by constituents.

Some examples include the HI-5 recycling program, the Public Land Development Corporation, airport procurement contracts, Charter Schools, certain tax credits, and a host of other statutes and requirements that affect us all.  We need to either fix or repeal laws that are not working as they were intended, or which have created burdens that were unforeseen at the time of their establishment.

To accomplish this, I call upon my fellow House and Senate members to use the post-session interim to initiate these evaluations, since there is never enough time in our hectic 60 day legislative session.  Our extensive network of boards and commissions could also assist us in this oversight and evaluation process.

Higher Education Chair Brian Taniguchi has the task of following up on the issues raised during the Special Committee on Accountability’s hearings on the University of Hawaii.  What resonated from those hearings is that those appointed as stewards of the public’s trust are responsible for the performance of the organizations they oversee and therefore must be held accountable.  Yes, we are indebted to these volunteer public servants for their willingness to devote their time without compensation.  But we also need them to be the public’s watchdogs.  Beyond their Senate confirmations, they should be called back to report to this body on what they see as the problems, as well as the opportunities, facing the organizations they help govern.

In order to assure food security, farmers need our assistance and commitment to preserve prime agricultural lands.  These are long-standing goals that have been slow to accomplish.  In a recent visit to Israel, I was surprised to learn that Israel produces 95 percent of its food, despite the fact that more than half of its land is desert and the climate and lack of water resources do not favor farming.  If Israel can successfully farm on desert land, then imagine how much we can produce on our lands.  So we need to seriously preserve prime farm lands by purchasing them, as we did with the Galbraith Estate.  I ask Agricultural Committee Chair Clarence Nishihara to pursue this.  I also urge the counties to expedite the completion of their identification and mapping of important agricultural lands.

Because of my experience on the Honolulu City Council and the Hawaii State Association of Counties, I am an advocate for county home-rule.  There’s more we can do to streamline the duplication and overlapping of state/county jurisdictions that are confusing to those we serve.  Let’s not forget that we serve the same constituency and they don’t care whose jurisdiction it is, they just want it done!

In accomplishing this, we could realize additional savings and be more efficient.  With former Council members Governor Abercrombie, Senators Donovan Dela Cruz, Kalani English, and Vice President Ron Kouchi, I am hopeful that we can all work together with the counties to finally resolve these issues.

Respecting home-rule also has the added benefit of making government less Oahu-centric.  Our new Lieutenant Governor and Maui resident Shan Tsutsui made that point in accepting his appointment and I believe it’s an important cause worth pursuing.

A step in that direction is the Senate’s launch of a pilot video conferencing project this session.  The Education Committee and the Technology and Arts committee will be utilizing video conferencing in their hearings, to enable and encourage the participation of neighbor island residents.  Our thanks to Chairs Jill Tokuda and Glenn Wakai for leading the Senate in this endeavor.

I’m excited, colleagues, about working with all of you, the members of the House of Representatives, Governor Abercrombie and his administration, and our community in the weeks ahead.  Much of what I outlined today did not occur overnight and will take more than one legislative session to accomplish.  So let’s begin today!

In closing, I am reminded of this quote, “When we least expect it, life sends us a challenge to test our courage and willingness to change.”  What better opportunity than now to heed these words.

Colleagues, we come from different places, different backgrounds.

You have your own reasons and your own stories for being here.  And while we may have differing opinions on the issues of the day, we must be united in our commitment to this institution, to collaboration, to being accountable to the constituents we serve, to building a better Hawaii and to “live aloha.”

This is our challenge.

God Bless you all! Mahalo.





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