Some Republicans and Democrats stand out as best, but when we tried to ID the worst, business leaders were reluctant to name names
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Others active at the Legislature make similar points. Richard Botti, who represents legions of small- and medium-size businesses and trade groups over the years, credits lawmakers with being accessible but not always responsive.
“They all listen, but not all hear,” he notes.
Botti gives the Legislature credit for the swift passage this year of a bill designed to reduce a dramatic surge in unemployment insurance taxes. But he says it wasn’t enough, considering the overall business climate. In fact, many in the business community cite the quick action on the unemployment fund as the highlight of the 2010 Legislature from a business perspective.
“The most significant action was the passage of the unemployment insurance tax relief bill,” says Sherry R. Menor-McNamara, VP for business advocacy and government affairs with the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii.
“The bill passed early in the session, which is quite rare,” she notes. “This was largely due to the support and recognition of the business community’s concerns by leadership, led by Senate President Colleen Hanabusa and Speaker Say and key committee chairs.”
Several observers also credit the Legislature for its quick action in an October 2007 special session that allowed the Superferry to go forward even while environmental studies were being done.
“The legislation to allow the Superferry to go forward was excellent,” says veteran lobbyist John Radcliffe. “It said that Hawaii was at long last willing to knit the islands together into a whole community. But the Hawaii Supreme Court killed it. The entire thought process that killed the Superferry encourages the continued Balkanization of Hawaii and serves to advance parochialism.”
Menor-McNamara echoes comments by others that the issue isn’t getting legislators to listen – they are generally accessible – but getting them to respond to the needs of business.
“Quite honestly,” she says, “the legislators have always been open to hear the business community’s concerns. Prior to each session, we meet with Senate and House leadership as well as with as many legislators as we can to discuss the chamber’s legislative agenda. Although some may not agree with our positions, at least they have an understanding of our positions and vice versa.”
Legislative leaders in both the House and Senate cite Act 2, the bill to reduce unemployment insurance taxes, as a key achievement of 2010’s session. House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro says it became quickly obvious that the No. 1 priority of business was reducing a planned 10-fold increase in the unemployment insurance tax caused by tens of thousands of layoffs statewide. He says the Legislature’s fast action – Act 2 was the second bill passed in 2010 – indicates the Legislature’s sensitivity to its importance to business.
But achievement is not always measured by what passes, Oshiro adds. It also can be measured by what doesn’t pass. He says businesses should be pleased that lawmakers resisted heavy pressure to raise taxes to offset declining revenues and cuts in government services.
Despite steady pressure from constituents concerned about Furlough Fridays and other budget cuts, and fierce pressure from the unions, “we didn’t raise the general excise tax or income tax on 97 percent of filers,” Oshiro said. By contrast, many budget-strapped states on the Mainland have been steadily increasing taxes.
“Business would have been kicking and screaming if we had raised the GET,” Oshiro says.
Other items on the business agenda were not dealt with, he acknowledges, but might be next year. These include reforming regulations and reining in the cost of workers’ compensation insurance.
Oshiro’s counterpart in the Senate, Majority Leader Gary Hooser – who has since resigned to run for lieutenant governor – made a similar argument. Hooser says it is not surprising that business was disappointed with the session. Many other interest groups were, too, he says.
“The most difficult responsibility we have as legislators is to prioritize,” he says. Over the past two years, when the budget was strained to the breaking point, “we looked very hard at the core responsibilities of government: health, safety and the environment. Those come before lower taxes for business. We were facing the pressure of the here and now. It was survival.”
Nonetheless, Hooser says, there are areas where the Legislature can and should act on behalf of business without enduring major new expenses. One area is business regulation and the permitting process. “That’s where the Legislature needs to focus.
“There are many things we can do to improve the business climate that don’t necessarily cost money. It might even save money,” he says.
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