Hawaii buckling under budget woes

Dan Ernesto looks through his belongings  Friday as Kristen Jacobs naps at Kapiolani Park in Waikiki, Hawaii.  (Associated Press)
Dan Ernesto looks through his belongings Friday as Kristen Jacobs naps at Kapiolani Park in Waikiki, Hawaii. (Associated Press)

Education, health seeing major cuts

HONOLULU – Hawaii public schools are closed most Fridays, rats scurry across bananas in uninspected stores, and there may not be enough money to run the next election.

Hawaii’s money troubles are creating a society more befitting a tropical backwater than a state celebrating its 50th anniversary and preparing to welcome President Barack Obama home for Christmas this week.

“There is community energy and outrage building up,” said James Koshiba, co-founder of activist organization and Web site Kanu Hawaii, speaking about the cuts to education. “… Folks won’t forget how this unfolds come election time.”

Hawaii is far from alone in cutting the size of government during the global financial downturn, with nearly every state resorting to across-the-board cuts, furloughs or layoffs to make ends meet. This tiny state of 1.3 million residents faces a projected $1 billion budget deficit through June 2011.

But Hawaii stands apart in how its government shrinkage has ripped into what are generally considered to be core functions: education, public health, elections and services for the disadvantaged.

Gov. Linda Lingle warned that government would not look the same after she ordered most departments to slash their budgets by about 14 percent.

“Government is not going to be able to provide the array of services at the level that we used to because we have billions of dollars less,” the Republican governor said earlier this month. “We need to be creative and we need to be realistic. We can’t be in a state of denial about the reduction in revenues that we have.”

Despite having largely withstood the housing market collapse, Hawaii is one of 13 states with a pessimistic budget outlook for the current fiscal year, said Arturo Perez, a fiscal analyst for the National Conference of State Legislatures. It’s projected to have the second-largest shortfall, percentage-wise, in the 2012 fiscal year, at 28.8 percent, behind only Arizona at 30 percent.

“When you see K-12 education being cut, which is often among the most popular programs, that speaks volumes about the tough choices the states are having to make,” Perez said. Hawaii’s state government and its teachers union recently decided to close schools for 17 days a year to save money.

Honolulu’s shortage of health inspectors – Oahu has just nine to handle nearly 6,000 markets and restaurants – isn’t new, but the cuts now call for the elimination of the Health Department’s vector control unit, which helps homeowners and businesses eradicate rodent, mosquito, fly and other pest problems.

“This is not good government,” said Larry Geller, an Internet blogger and political watchdog who posted a video of rats scurrying across produce in a Honolulu Chinatown market. “Other states are struggling with the same problems, and many of them are making difficult decisions. But Hawaii … I think the choices have been poorly made.”

As for the pending election, Hawaii’s elections chief said his office doesn’t have enough money to run either a regular or all-mail vote. A special election will be needed because U.S. Rep. Neil Abercrombie plans to resign in the next few weeks to run for governor, leaving a vacancy in Congress. If money can’t be found, that spot may not be filled until the regularly scheduled primary election.

Meanwhile, services to poor and disadvantaged populations are dropping off when they are most needed, said Alex Santiago, executive director of PHOCUSED, a consortium of nonprofits.

“The homeless situation is right in your face. Almost everywhere you go now you see people who are absolutely devastated and have nowhere else to turn,” Santiago said. “We’ve allowed our responsibilities to slip.”

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