Friday, April 27, 2012
Hawaii’s state government is built on rapidly eroding trust
by Larry Geller
More than perhaps any other state, Hawaii asks its citizens to trust its elected representatives. This legislative session is dangerously close to losing that trust, which ought to have consequences if one believes in representative government.
The portion of the electorate that can participate directly in the legislative process has always been limited. For one thing, outside of the island of Oahu, citizens have few, if any, opportunities for involvement in the participatory culture of governing. Unlike states on the Continent, it’s not possible for Neighbor Islanders to hop on a bus or drive to the State Capitol to attend a hearing or to speak one’s mind to legislators. The legislative process itself is so cumbersome that even residents of Oahu can’t participate unless they are willing to give up one or more days of work to wait for their bill to come up on a perpetually delayed agenda.
This leaves citizens for the most part without a chance to develop the cultural competencies and social skills needed to navigate and influence the legislative process.
So all that’s left is trust. We elect our representatives and trust that they will work on our behalf. It’s similar to the US Congress. We elect them and send them on their way. With our trust that they will act on our behalf (stop snickering).
The same would apply to Hawaii’s governor, and explains why his approval ratings are in the dungeon, at or near the bottom of the ratings of other state’s governors. When expectations are high and trust is violated, citizens are sure to disapprove.
This is an election year and trust will be a large part of the measure of our politicians. Of course, there are other factors. The recession economy creates “trust-stress” in that we expect our representatives to work on our behalf to provide both protection (as from foreclosures) and relief (in the form of living-wage jobs). That’s tough to do with limited funds. The way they go about this is our measure of their effectiveness, and in an election year, of their continuity in office. Or at least, in a state where incumbents are seldom removed, a measure of the battle incumbents could face in November to defend their actions this session as legislators.
Of course, the budget is the biggest issue and the biggest prize for corporations and special interests. In years past, even when the state enjoyed a budget surplus, the surplus itself was gained at the expense of neglect. There has been major deterioration of key infrastructure such as schools and bridges. Road repair was done on the cheap, leaving behind not only potholes to be filled in the future but major remedial expenses. Mental health services were cut by an uncaring Department of Health, requiring federal intervention. We no longer protect our food supply or restaurant sanitation.
Now that the state is strapped for cash it is expected to “create jobs” by spending money it has less of than it ever did.
Co-opting the current clamor for jobs, legislators are taking advantage and pushing through unwise measures that exempt companies from conforming to environmental protections, put the biggest, fattest insurance companies in charge of our health care, and to top it off, have advanced legislation that would lock records of government shenanigans away from the public.
The beneficiaries of these measures, passed so far over the objections of community groups, are not the voters or workers of Hawaii but the corporations that will be gifted with environmental exemptions, and the already fat monopoly health insurers.
The influence of corporations in government, following the Citizens United decision of the Supreme Court, has never been greater. Corporate money is increasingly used to bamboozle the electorate. Who but corporations favor sacrificing the environment for jobs? Who but corporations would put health insurers in charge of designing the health care system under which those without insurance will be mandated to buy care?
It is becoming increasingly obvious that legislators are not only influenced by, but often act as proxies for, Hawaii’s influential corporate interests. Sure, it’s the same in other states, but that’s no excuse.
Those of us on Oahu have a special responsibility to find a way to convince our state legislators that we don’t want them caving to special interests. Yes, of course we want jobs, but we also want to protect our quality of life. Legislators have failed to demonstrate that the radical exemptions they are proposing will provide any “bump” for the economy or create local jobs.
We also want honest government, with legislators who represent us, not giant insurance companies or developers. We may differ in our individual priorities, but speaking generally we want things like cheaper food, locally grown, an end to unbridled development, limits on outrageous electricity and gasoline charges, and an end to the neglect of our infrastructure that has been endemic in state government.
This legislative session looks so far like a giant step backwards.
But it’s not a blame game. Despite the obstacles, if citizens sit back and let these bills pass into laws, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Forget trust, take action.