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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, January 1, 2010

Reshaping government a key goal for 2010

2009? There's a year that could have gone better.

Nothing, it seemed, could relieve the brutal pressure of rising unemployment, budget deficits, bankruptcies and foreclosures, layoffs and furloughs. The Great Recession sapped not only our bank balances, but our collective confidence as well.

But it's a new year, and we bring to it valuable lessons learned from 2009's trial by fire.

For one, we discovered the hard limits of government largesse. It's now painfully clear that public money alone can't be relied on to support the wide array of services the public has come to expect. This includes one of government's most essential functions to protect Hawai'i's poorest and weakest.

With a $1 billion-plus budget deficit awaiting the Legislature in January, Hawai'i simply can't afford the government it has. Policymakers must reduce, consolidate and streamline government operations. And prudence demands that they ensure government won't bloat up again at the first sign of prosperity.

To that end, all viable options should be a priority for lawmakers this year. Here are just a few to consider:

• Reduce overlapping responsibilities of state and county governments, especially in infrastructure areas such as roads.

• Give the public schools superintendent a seat on the governor's Cabinet, so essential policy discussions won't take place as they do now at a hostile, unproductive distance.

• Support creative solutions to pay for desired services, such as the Department of Land and Natural Resources' bond-financed Recreational Renaissance Plan.

• Take a hard look at so-called "special funds" that siphon off revenue, too often under the public radar, for less-than-essential purposes.

Of course, even the most efficient government can't do everything. Public and private enterprises must collaborate to support key pillars of economic development, including tourism and renewable energy.

This teamwork also applies to vital social services. Too many of Hawai'i's most vulnerable citizens have already fallen through the tattered social safety net, as deep cuts in public funding left nonprofit social-service agencies struggling. But some innovative social programs that made headlines in 2009 offer promising solutions.

Organized giving for targeted needs epitomized by the Save Our Sports and public library campaigns, and the Hawaii Community Foundation's Stabilization Initiative show how private donors can leverage scarce public funds for maximum effect, whether for popular programs or keeping people solvent during the recession.

Yes, the experts say the economy is slowly recovering. In the meantime, it's imperative that policymakers commit to reshaping a government that's more frugal, efficient and responsive to its duties. That would make for a happier new year.