straight schatz – Governor’s tough decisions

Every year, the Legislature seems to get publicly defined by a few high-profile conflicts — someone from the administration gets dumped by the Senate (Bronster, Young, Lagareta) or high profile legislation distracts the media (van cams, gay marriage) while regular people wonder why any of this should matter to them.

But this year may be defined by something different. There are a few bills lying on Gov. Linda Lingle’s desk that represent a tough decision — they are reasonable public policy with popular support, but what should a Republican to do with a good Democrat idea?

• Public financing for elections

I’m surprised that this passed. It’s unusual and impressive that such a fundamental reform in the financing of elections was adopted by those who benefit from the way things are. So legislators deserve credit for being willing to take this risk.

But here’s the governor’s dilemma: replacing the current special-interest driven approach with tax dollars is a progressive solution not in keeping with the small-government traditions of the Grand Old Party. Public financing has worked in other places, but most conservatives hate the idea of tax dollars going towards electoral politics. There’s real grassroots support for this, and it’s an opportunity for the governor to assert herself as a change agent who isn’t bound by party orthodoxy.

• Turtle Bay purchase

Everyone was shocked when the governor used her bully pulpit to suggest that Turtle Bay Resort ought to be purchased. The fact that we still don’t really know the terms of a potential deal hasn’t reduced the enthusiasm, because nearly everyone wants to prevent an ugly expansion of hotels on the North Shore of O‘ahu. But that was before the state’s best economists predicted a downturn, before Aloha Airlines, ATA, Molokai Ranch and Weyerhauser. This is an admirable idea in a vacuum, and I’m hopeful that there’s still a way to make it work, but if the purchase price is anywhere near the hundreds of millions originally discussed, public opinion will pivot instantly.

• Early learning

The research is conclusive. Children who attend preschool or other early education do better in kindergarten and beyond. They get higher test scores all the way through high school, have lower truancy and dropout rates, and are better adjusted socially. In Oklahoma, low income student test scores shot up 26 percent with universal preschool. If you ask teachers, they say that can tell which kids went to preschool and which didn’t just by observing them on the first day of school.

The bill on the governor’s desk sets up an Early Learning Council, which is the first step toward universal preschool. This bill was worked on by two unsung heroes in the legislature, Rep. Roy Takumi and Sen. Norman Sakamoto. Since money is an issue, they will target low-income youngsters first, and expand as funds (and political will) becomes available.

This one should be pretty easy for the governor to sign — it’s going to do more to improve public education than any of the latest public policy fads, because it’s already been proven to work.

So what’s the problem?

In order to sign this bill, she again has to swallow the premise that the wisest choice is an expansion in the size and scope of government.

• Brian Schatz was a state representative for eight years and ran for the U.S. House in 2006. He is currently CEO of Helping Hands Hawai’i, one of O’ahu’s largest social service agencies.

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