It’s The Hawaii Economy, Stupid

Dan Boylan
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Wednesday - February 25, 2009

Years ago, a former Leeward area state senator and his supporters picked up litter along the roads and highways in my district. They’d filled their garbage bags with beer and soda cans (pre-HI-5 deposit), fast-food wrappers and discarded baby diapers. Then they’d tie ‘em up, slap a sticker on them advertising the civic-mindedness - and populism - of the sitting senator, and leave them beside the road for the city garbage collectors.

If an animal was splayed across the road in front of your house, you could call this distinguished lawmaker. He’d come posthaste, bag the mess and take it to the nearest city dump. He provided a needed, vote-winning service, particularly for the squeamish, like myself.

I liked the guy and - if my fading memory serves me right - I voted for him once when he ran for Congress.

I don’t call my current state legislator to pick up unsightly trash by the side of the road, but I do go to see him when I’m looking for ideas - particularly those that run against the political grain.

“I’m uncomfortable with the doom and gloom of the House leadership,” says State Rep. Roy Takumi (46th District: Pearl City, Momilani, Pacific Palisades, and Manana). “The economic picture isn’t rosy, but it’s not the Great Depression either. The pertinent question is how do we get out of it?”

While he acknowledges that investment in highway construction and buildings will help the economy, Takumi has some reservations: “The discussion is about ‘shovel-ready’ projects. They may be shovel-ready, but I’m not certain they’re shovel-worthy.

“We’re talking $1.86 billion in spending projects. We’ll have to sell bonds to raise that money, which increases our debt services - and the cost of debt service comes right off the top.

“I fear that we’ve become captive of a narrow strategy of investing in concrete.”

But Takumi doesn’t entirely dismiss “investing in concrete.” He argues that the Legislature needs to be more “strategic, prudent, accountable - and hopeful.”

Takumi chairs the House Education Committee. One out of every two dollars the state spends is on education, and Takumi is convinced that the state must “invest in people.”

“It’s in times like these that people stay in school or return for training in another field. Consider preschool education, something that’s already been penciled out of our discussion. Studies show that for every dollar spent on preschool, between $7 and $17 come back to society. We need incentives to draw people into preschool teaching. At the moment, there is none.

“Or higher education - higher education in Hawaii is a $2 billion industry. It brings grants, awards and students to the state that spur the economy.

“President Obama understands this. His stimulus bill includes spending on infrastructure, tax cuts and investment in people - education, extended unemployment, healthcare, food stamps.”

Takumi’s criticisms extend beyond his legislative colleagues to the media: “They write about bans on fireworks (a bill of his) and pit bulls instead of a more substantive discussion of what we should be doing in this economy.”

Takumi has a point. The frequent demonstrations at the Capitol are as likely to be for or against fireworks or discriminatory legislation against pit bulls as they are about crucial funding measures.

“Allocating dollars or re-allocating dollars, that’s what this place is all about. That process is far more important than pit bull legislation.”

One of education chair Takumi’s attempts to re-allocate dollars involves consolidating low-enrollment schools around the state. Parents in the affected schools have been loud in condemning his efforts.

“Despite plunging enrollments in some neighborhoods, we haven’t closed a school in Hawaii since 1979. That does-n’t make sense, particularly in these economic times.”

But Takumi’s main concern is the state’s seeming rush to pour concrete.

“When a person’s clothes catch fire, the instinct is to run,” he says. “That’s the worst thing you can do. In dealing with allocating our resources, we have to be more discerning, more deliberate than simply spending on infrastructure.”

Wise man, Takumi. He just doesn’t pick up litter.

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