Thursday, November 26, 2009

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A Message from Lieutenant Governor Candidate Gary Hooser:

I have come to believe that much of the hand-wringing and sometimes hysterical rhetoric about civil unions is a bit of a red herring in that it distracts us from what should be our focus whenever we make laws: access to justice for all.

As Americans we pride ourselves on being a nation of laws. And indeed people flock to our shores because they are attracted to a system of laws structured to ensure that all are treated equally. The question of civil unions should not be confused with the sanctification of marriage that religious institutions provide and which indeed should be their domain. The state’s primary responsibility is to provide the legal structure and ensure that the law is applied equally. Would anyone disagree with the very American idea that if all citizens are to be treated equally, all citizens should have access to the same legal structure and the protections that come with it?

The divisive scare-mongering and bombastic hyperbole that fills the airwaves of talk radio are similar to the noise that surrounds any attempt to have any civil discussion of civil unions. Visceral antipathies tend to obscure what should remain a consistent focus on cherished American values, laws and freedoms. Even conservatives like David Keene, Grover Norquist and Bob Barr have, in a different context, called for the "scare-mongering to stop."

Indeed, the misleading rhetoric on civil unions and the divisiveness it fosters need to stop.

This is a time that calls for greater unity, not less. The challenges we face are real and daunting: the need to give our children a quality education, the need for jobs, the need to protect our environment and reduce our dependency on foreign oil, the need to provide healthcare for all. These very large issues of public policy demand our best energies and our most creative solutions. It is to these areas that we should direct our combined efforts as a community. We can do this. We can rise above our parochial, private interests and work for the greater good without denying our neighbor the enjoyment of a private life complete with all the rights each of us expects as Americans.

We can and must find agreement and it is possible by viewing this important subject through the prism of equal rights. I know we can do this. I know it because we are Americans. Our country was founded on these principles, the most basic among them being personal freedom and equal protection under the law.
A recent New York Times article touted Hawai‘i’s healthcare system as a “lesson for lawmakers.” Workers in our state, who work more than 20 hours a week, have enjoyed health care benefits since 1974. A rarity in other states in the union, Congress is looking for ways to incorporate similar initiatives in the new national plans.

Compared to many parts of the country, Hawai‘i has a comfortable climate that promotes healthy living. We have the ability to eat nutritious produce that is grown locally and enjoy the health benefits of fresh-caught seafood. For many, the outdoors is our playground.

Our people enjoy the ocean, hiking on mountain trails and increasingly are taking up cycling and walking as our infrastructure for these activities improves and becomes more accessible. For these reasons and others, Hawai‘i’s Medicare costs are far below the national average. Culturally, our guiding principles reiterate shared responsibility. In the spirit of ohana, legislators, providers and citizens know of the need to work together to provide care for all.

Yet today, nearly 125,000 people in our islands are without health insurance. Amid the economic downturn, newly unemployed workers are watching their benefits dissolve. Employers are also struggling to afford the ever-rising cost of insurance while revenue declines. In recent years, an increasing number of part-time (less than 19 hours per week) employees have been utilized by businesses around our state to keep costs down and avoid health care insurance requirements.

With prices of medication rising faster than inflation, the incomes of seniors, the chronically ill, and the working poor, are suffering. Many of Hawai‘i's people face tough choices about their health, and may go without medication in order to pay for other basic needs. Additionally, our small hospitals on Kaua‘i and throughout the neighbor islands, are facing shrinking budgets and increasing deficits.

I have dealt with this first-hand. My wife’s parents who reside with us in Wailua Homesteads are a living testament to the benefit of our country’s existing “public option.” While not without its shortcomings, if not for Medicare there is no doubt that the challenges of growing old would have bankrupted our family years ago. I know the struggles personally of providing our increasingly ageing population with adequate care within the constraints of a working family’s limited budget.

All Americans have a right to expect affordable, quality healthcare. 
I am in support of a single-payer universal coverage system where no one is denied health care due to lack of income. Legislative action must prevent any cuts or changes that reduce the existing benefits of Medicare/Medicaid and must support efforts to increase reimbursements to health care providers. The health care insurance and pharmaceutical industries have profited from the sick and injured long enough. It is time again to put the customer first and ensure that everyone is provided affordable quality care.

Several initiatives intended to reform and improve our health care system are currently being debated at the federal level in Congress. I am hopeful that our federal leaders will pass a law that gradually expands Medicare and/or Medicaid benefits to more Americans. In addition, support for community-based health centers must also be increased. This is possible without taking away existing benefits from those who desire, and can afford a higher level of service.

Local and national leaders must take charge and adapt the healthcare system to the times.

While today’s budget crisis is temporary, the negative impacts of cutting 17 days of classroom instruction this year will last forever. No one will disagree that as a direct result of this action student achievement will suffer, test scores will fall and the future of an entire generation of young people will be impacted. The disruption to our families as they scramble with the added burden, further multiplies the adverse impacts.

When I speak to community groups around the state, I like to repeat a truism I have learned serving in the legislature; “When they tell you there is no money, what they are really saying is that it is not a priority.”

The future of our children must be our top priority. While we can complain about the quality and bemoan the historical low ratings of public education in Hawai‘i, losing 17 days of classroom instruction will reverse years of effort and plunge our state deeper into educational mediocrity.

It does not have to be this way. We can avoid teacher furloughs and keep our schools open by having the political will and foresight to use a portion of the $180,000,000 sitting now in the Hawai‘i Hurricane Relief Fund.

As someone whose life was shaken by Hurricane Iwa in 1982 and then losing my home and almost losing my business to Hurricane Iniki in 1992, I do not make this suggestion lightly. The physical damage wrought by a hurricane would be rebuilt, with or without the hurricane fund in place. Insurance companies have returned to Hawai‘i since their post-Iniki departure and federal disaster agencies are also ready to help.

With our budget in dire straits funding options are limited. Every state program has already been drastically cut and all public workers face pay cuts, furloughs and even layoffs. The additional funds needed to make our schools whole are too great to achieve by simply cutting state programs even more. Furthermore, our state constitution guarantees the rights of public workers to bargain collectively. Neither the legislature nor the Governor can dictate to teachers or other public workers specific contract provisions or wage cuts.

Although the hurricane fund can provide immediate relief, long-term answers must come in the 2010 legislative session. We must make the hard decisions with regards to streamlining and restructuring all government services, and face head-on the question regarding possible tax increases. If the public supports increasing taxes to support education, we must approach the topic cautiously with the clear goal of improving the status quo, not simply piling on more tax increases.

To be clear, we cannot continue to rely on tourists and high income residents to carry the brunt of the load. Possibilities include reforming the General Excise Tax (GET) by removing this regressive tax from supermarket food, medical services/supplies and rents under $1,000 – while earmarking a modest net increase for education. Other possibilities include what some are calling the “new sin taxes” - a “sugar tax” on soda, a “fat tax” on fast and/or processed food and a “carbon tax” on oil – all of which would serve the dual purposes of raising much needed funds while deterring inherently unhealthy behavior.

In the coming weeks there will be many meetings and briefings where the pros and cons of various ways to deal with this issue will be debated. These discussions are important, but we must speed the process in restoring our children’s access to education. If others have ideas that would resolve the issue in a realistic and bi-partisan manner, I would love to hear them.

The long-term remedies demand an extensive community discussion and thorough evaluation. The short-term solution however I believe is clear. We need to convene a five day special session, utilize hurricane funds for education, cancel the 17 days of furlough and send both parties back to the bargaining table.

Losing 17 days of classroom instruction is just unacceptable.
In 1966, a well-known California political figure, Jesse M. Unruh, coined the phrase “Money is the mother’s milk of politics.” Today in Hawai‘i, the primary measure of a candidate is too often the question “yes, but can he/she raise the money?”

The opening paragraphs of the bi-partisan Common Cause Agenda for Change says it best: The problem is not so much the amount we spend on political campaigns ... as it is who pays for them, what they get in return and how that distorts public policy and spending priorities. Keeping our elected officials dependent on the very same wealthy special interests they are supposed to regulate undermines public confidence in their government and its ability to tackle the tough issues that face the nation.

To ensure the survival of democracy, to re-inspire and re-engage those who have lost faith in government leaders, who’ve opted out of the system and who no longer even show up to vote on election day, the power of big money and big influence must be tempered through comprehensive campaign spending reform.

It is likely to cost $2 million to $3 million or more to get elected governor in Hawai‘i in the upcoming 2010 elections. The successful candidate for the office of lieutenant governor will spend at least $500,000 in the primary election alone.

While the majority of funds are spent on radio, TV and newspaper advertising, there are myriad other expenses such as office rental, yard signs, banners, mailings, brochures and inter-island travel.

Getting your message out to the public, building statewide name recognition, running a year-long effort focused on success at the polls on election day is just plain expensive.

There are only a few basic ways to raise money: go to Bishop Street in downtown Honolulu and ask 100 big dogs for the maximum $6,000, reach out to main street and try to find 6,000 regular people to contribute $100 each, ask Mom or Dad for a loan or dig into personal family wealth (if they have any).

For many good candidates, Bishop Street is a foreign town and accessing family assets is just not an option. These financial realities alone are formidable roadblocks to most who contemplate running for high office. To move higher requires convincing the moneyed elite that you are worthy. Or, one must be very good at organizing at the grassroots level and be able to build a veritable army of people willing to contribute at the $10 to $100 level.

Is this a bad thing? A rhetorical question for the candidate because this is the system we operate under. You have to be elected to serve and you have to raise the money to be elected. For the long-term public interest, it is a real question and the answer in my humble opinion is yes, it is a bad thing. Choosing our public leaders based on their ability to raise large amounts of money clearly does not serve the public interest.

A viable statewide public funding option is needed in Hawai‘i. A system whereby qualified candidates may access public funds to level the playing field against the favorite sons and daughters of established political and moneyed interests is essential to re-instill faith and confidence in the democratic process.

Until a fully funded public option is available in Hawai‘i, it is up to both the moneyed elite and the grassroots, and yes, Mom and Dad too, to carry the very heavy weight of paying the cost of the very core of our democracy — free and fair elections.


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