“If one is not playing the great game of politics, then one is being used as a pawn by somebody who is. This is true in one’s condo association, PTA, city, county and state governments, and in virtually any other organization of humans one might think of.” – Scott Foster (1978)
After living and working in and around Hawai`i politics for the past 1/4 century, I have some observations to share on Hawai`i’s precarious economic and social situations, I perhaps have a little insight that could shed more light on at least part of our misunderstood and currently unsustainable economic circumstances, and I will also attempt to offer up some ideas that might quickly advance certain much-needed economic development initiatives in Hawai`i. I say “attempt” only because I have in the past floated several such ideas to government — only to see them commandeered by fools and then executed badly, tainting them forever. Since “A New Day In Hawai`i” is still being touted, let’s begin there.
Whatever one’s political persuasion, one might hope that all would wish our new governor success — for like it or not, Neil Abercrombie is now the Captain of our little canoe and we are in the midst of an economic storm which could indeed drown us all. The problem is, while he may know his way around our little boat, Governor Abercrombie’s never been a captain (Governor), his helmsmen (department heads) have never stood at a wheel, and most of his crew (senior staff) have never been on a canoe with such complicated rigging. The learning curve is enormous and there is no instruction manual.
As a little background, conventional wisdom says that any Hawai`i governor holds sway over an estimated 5,000 appointments and jobs. To date, many of Governor Abercrombie’s cabinet-level appointees have been lauded for their integrity and experience and while that remains to be seen, many private-sector folks I know remain skeptical about several of the new Governor’s close friends, advisors, and recent senior staff hires. Some may “very nice” people, but it’s been my experience that managing an election campaign is far different than governing — as President Obama is now learning the hard way.
The first hard lesson private sector people must learn after becoming state employees is that they are now state employees. Any excessive hubris, ego, passive-aggressive tendencies, or inclinations to withhold or control public information that they might have gotten away with in the past will come flying back to bite them squarely in the butt — should such attitudes continue into the State Administration. Governor Abercrombie will and indeed should enjoy a honeymoon, but the electorate is frightened and angry with incumbent politicians in general and his possible ignorance about some of the above-defined attitudes of several of his new staff could help end any such grace period. In any event, there is no excuse for rudeness.
The last Governor was a Republican and she had eight full years to populate the vast State Bureaucracy with individuals close to her politics. To further complicate the matter, Hawai`i’s bureaucracy has always been difficult at best to manage and any talk of “reinventing” or “retooling” or “re-prioritizing” State government probably won’t translate into much change in the Islands — just yet. As reported
on December 26th, there is a growing realization in many mainland states that their current tax bases, severely weakened by massive unemployment and underemployment, can simply no longer afford the generous salaries and benefits now enjoyed by their unionized government workers. Only last week, the first-term Governor of New Jersey, Chris Christie told CBS’ 60 Minutes that “The day of reckoning has arrived.”
Time was, because local government employees were paid significantly less than their private sector counterparts, employment stability with generous healthcare and retirement benefits were offered as incentives. As time passed, in good times unionized government workers were routinely given seemingly appropriate wage and benefit increases — to the point that now, many are receiving wage and benefit packages greatly exceeding those in the private sector. As Governor Christie put it, “Look around! Nobody has such generous wage, retirement and healthcare benefits anymore. Nobody.” Welcome to the “New Economy” which I will continue to call “The New Normal.
This public debate already taking place elsewhere is beginning to surface in Hawai`i as the reality of the enormous fiscal challenges begin to set in with the new administration. During a January 4th televised informational briefing in front of the state Senate Ways and Means and House Finance committees, Abercrombie’s new interim budget director, Kalbert Young, said the administration will probably be making “emergency spending requests” to get through the current fiscal year which ends on June 30 and that it might be as late as March before the administration discloses exactly how it will be dealing with the deficit in the following two-year budget cycle. Abercrombie had earlier announced that the state was facing a $71.6 million deficit “this fiscal year” and “a $771.9 million shortfall in the following two years.”
House Majority Leader Marcus Oshiro was quoted in a January 5th Star-Advertiser news article by journalist Derrick DePledge as saying, “‘I think they’re coming to grips with the reality that they have a shortfall,'” Oshiro said. “All the low-hanging fruit? That’s already been picked and eaten. It’s gone. It’s gone already.'”
Simply put, Governor Abercrombie has his work cut out for him and one might boil several of his many challenges down to two basic problems — with the first being the status quo. “Status quo” means “to keep the things the way they presently are.” Now to do that is a constant battle requiring all sorts of resources to indeed stay in the same place — and those who already have their piece of the pie will do whatever it takes to hang on to it. This is why unions (and other lobbying groups) come together (organize) to pool their money and human resources. The more money and bodies, the more political influence and clout. And several of the unions are probably the most responsible for Governor Abercrombie’s 17-point campaign victory.
It’s always been true in our small island state, that good jobs are hard to find and state contracts are literally impossible to get — unless one is a member of one of the several well-known groups of insiders. The reality is, the Democratic Party is comprised of a number of distinct groups — all competing for the same pieces of Hawai`i’s rapidly shrinking pie. And if you didn’t go to a local high school or attend one of Hawaii’s several elite private schools, it’s nearly impossible to pay your dues and be accepted. Despite the many local social obstacles, some of we outsiders somehow manage to create our own businesses and can at least eke out a living when the economy goes South. Others of course do thrive and, seeking to maintain their own status quo, they aren’t likely to complain much out loud about the nepotism, cronyism, and the feeding frenzy often going on all around them when something like APEC comes to town. This leaves an awful lot of we small business folks — Democrat, Republican, Independents and all the rest — standing on the outside looking in while the pie is being cut and divvied out.
COMING NEXT: Part II – The Brain Drain, $5 gasoline, and A Rare Peak Under The Hood of The Democratic Party of Hawai`i.