Legislators Looking For A Cause
Wednesday - February 11, 2009
Skills all successful legislators seem to possess is how to count votes, choosing whom to pick on to increase their popularity, and how to identify those without power or community support. When you combine these skills with a smooth, self-congratulatory communication style, political success is almost guaranteed.
The first skill gives the politician the ability to withhold support for a proposed bill until it’s evident the bill will appeal to a broad majority of fellow legislators and campaign contributors. These types don’t ever seem to be on the wrong side of a floor vote. Second is the skill to never pick on someone who has strong community ties and many loyal friends. These types are most always at the top of the political pecking order. And lastly, they will come to the aid of a political friend in a time of need.
Of the 3,000-plus bills before the Hawaii state Legislature this year, there are a few that make the point. Most taxpayers have heard of “sin taxes.” These are excessively high taxes on products with which the general public and powerful nonprofit organizations are at odds.
The classic sinful activity in Hawaii these days is smoking a cigarette in public. It’s been a long time since our legislative session has not been graced with a bill stomping on smokers and the hazards of secondhand smoke. This year there is a proposal to ban smoking on Waikiki Beach because it hurts tourism. The thinking is that Waikiki Beach is a national landmark and shouldn’t be polluted with discarded cigarette butts. Smokers will be allowed to smoke on the sidewalks, but not on Waikiki Beach. If cigarette butts are bad for tourism, wouldn’t it be more logical to ban cigarette smoking on all of Hawaii’s beaches?
No, I’m not a smoker. I’m just empathizing with how isolated smokers, as a political target, must feel. A couple of years ago the Legislature banned smoking in an enclosed area, such as a bar or restaurant. The next step was to designate smoking areas, and then it escalated to putting them a specific number of feet from any public establishment. People who smoke have a nasty habit and there is no support for their addiction. It may sound farfetched now, but sometime in the future it shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone if legislation is introduced to make smoking a felony with jail time.
Another group that has become a punching bag for new legislators is the homeless. The attention focused on the homeless includes creative solutions camouflaged as a desperate need for urban renewal. Last year’s effort was to change the design of bus stops so the homeless wouldn’t be tempted to lie down and occupy them.
Two new efforts have appeared at the square building. One bill would make it illegal to sleep or lie down on any bench or sidewalk at a public bus stop. The problem is the bill would be unenforceable, since it doesn’t specify how long someone would have to be lying down at the bus stop before being cited.
Another bill would give Hawaii’s homeless population a one-way ticket to the continental United States. The bill has passed its first readings in the House of Representatives and is on its way to becoming law. The bill’s sponsors believe it would help reunite the homeless with their families and help them get back on their feet. They want $75,000 in the program’s first year, which would be used to fund cheap tickets to the Mainland.
But how do you send someone home when you don’t know where they came from? It’s worth mentioning that many of the homeless population don’t have families with which to be reunited.
If nothing else, these types of legislative proposals are a reminder to all taxpayers that falling into one of these disenfranchised groups can make your life miserable. Additionally, the junior legislators are constantly looking for a cause, and smokers, homeless people from other states, fireworks, public employees benefits and potholes all have the kinds of problems legislators focus on while trying to make their mark.
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