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Our Senate Needs to Show Aloha

Legislative Briefing – Without Pono Or Aloha

Today’s opening day of the legislature marks a fresh, new beginning. It’s a time to present our best thinking, engage in collaboration and problem solving, and explore new and different ways to move our state forward. It’s imperative that Hawai‘i’s legislators, the UH administration, and faculty work together to find solutions to uphold quality education, support ongoing research, and to better serve our community. This is an important year for the UH. At an informational briefing held by the Senate Committees on Ways and Means and Higher Education on Jan. 10, UH President David Lassner and Vice President and Chief Financial Officer Kalbert Young presented the UHʻs budgetary requests along with details to restore the UH budget, which has been significantly reduced since the pandemic. Informational briefings allow the UH leaders to present their budget requests, as approved by the UH Board of Regents, prior to the start of session. As Senator Donovan Dela Cruz stated in an article published on December 26, 2022 on Kauai News Now, “(t)he budget briefings are critical for the Senate and the public to get details and information about each department’s budget requests.”

Restoration of Key Programs

The UH asked for a modest budget of $56 million. About $22 million was earmarked for the Hawai‘i Promise Program, which provides badly needed financial support so that Hawai‘i high school graduates can receive a quality higher education right here in our islands. Unfortunately, this was not funded last year. Another $21 million would restore the much needed general funds for operations, which the UH was forced to slash to save costs during the pandemic to continue the UHʻs operations due to the legislatureʻs inaction. Other important components of the UH’s budget request include $4 million for workforce development; $500,000 for wildfire response; and $510,000 for mental health support. It was a very well planned budget and the UH leaders came to the meeting ready to have a substantive and productive discussion. It was an important meeting to ensure the UH has sufficient funds to effectively carry on its mission of providing quality education for students, conducting valuable research, and to serve our community.

An Important Senate Briefing Sadly Lacked Substance

True to form, some Hawai’i senators weren’t interested in understanding UH’s budgetary requests and needs or to finding workable solutions to address concerns raised. The nearly three and a half hour briefing did not have any substantive, meaningful, and forward-looking discussion to explore the UH’s strategic priorities. Instead, the senators chose to spend an inordinate amount of time hashing over a vacant dorm building which was used as a weapon to interrogate UH on its priorities, berate UH leaders on their budgeting processes, and take to task the need to separate the responsibilities of the UH president from that of the UH Mānoa chancellor. Clearly, these senators had their own agenda. Woefully, the important briefing was both disappointing and counter-productive. Rather than focusing on critical issues such as access to public higher education for Hawai‘i’s most vulnerable, those at the informational briefing had to endure legislative theatrical performances.

A Familiar Pattern

Those who follow committee meetings and hearings readily recognize the familiar pattern of these senators’ approach. The senators pre-identify an issue that is vaguely related to the subject at hand, go off topic, and turn the meeting into a stage to showcase what they think is their brilliance. A productive, respectful discussion never occurs. To everyone else watching, it is embarrassing to watch these elected officials think they are doing Hawai‘i taxpayers a favor when in fact, they do a disservice by avoiding the very issues that are most important to their constituents. The time taken for grandstanding, degrading, and condescending remarks take away any opportunity for meaningful dialogue, discussion, and focus on the budgetary needs of the UH for the next fiscal year and years to come. While it makes great news, storylines, and sensational YouTube TV clips, it really isn’t productive and conducive for collaboration. The public gets that President Lassner doesnʻt win the popular vote with these senators but with his tenure coming to a close, itʻs time that all parties move forward toward advancing and building the UH.

Can We Please Move Off Performative Politics?

If the recent senate informational briefing on the UH budget is an indication of what we can expect this session, it is sad to say that things will not change for the better. As a State and its people, should we expect more from our elected officials and can we ask that they stop the bad behavior and conduct themselves as professionals?  Perhaps it’s time for everyone in the community who put these senators into office to demand Aloha and hold them to a higher level of scrutiny or some other action to call for change.  Regardless, something needs to be done to address this problem.

We’re Better Than This, Aren’t We?

It is unfortunate that some of our elected leaders have become absorbed in replicating the style, manner, and conduct of the US congress.  We all have been taught to be better living in Hawai‘i where we embrace righteousness and the Aloha spirit.  Let us not forget about who we are regardless of our differences and perpetuate the Stateʻs Motto, Ua Mau ke Ea o ka ʻĀina i ka Pono.