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Vestiges of Indecision Leads to Lack of Trust

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By Lowell L. Kalapa

Someone recently asked what it would take to turn this state around after eight long years of economic doldrums and financial crises.

While there are those who use the easy excuse that Hawaii’s woes are largely the product of the Asian flu, there are others who are of the opinion that it goes far beyond the fact that the Japanese, Korean and other Asian economies have been suffering their own malaise. These latter observers point out that if Hawaii is the happy meeting ground between east and west, then why hasn’t Hawaii been able to harness some of the economic exuberance to be found on the mainland?

What it does come down to is the fact that Hawaii isn’t such an attractive place to do business. If it were, then no matter where in the world investors are, they would bring their money to Hawaii because there is the prospect that they may be able to make some money from investing in Hawaii. Unfortunately, Hawaii has gained the reputation as a place where one cannot make a profit because everything is working against the investor.

When we speak of everything, we mean the rules and the laws and the attitudes work against anyone who wants to make a profit. When it comes to dealing with the agencies that regulate how one does business in Hawaii, one would assume that their mission in life is to throw every possible hurdle in the path of the application, to stall, torment, doubt, and test the intentions of the applicant’s actions.

If it is not a matter of devising an obstacle course, then it is a matter of not making a decision. How many times has an applicant for a building permit or a zoning change or a health certificate been put off because there is not enough information or some board or commission didn’t have a quorum? Delays and postponements cost money, but does the public agency realize this simple fact? Apparently not in most cases, as application after application is delayed. What one county proudly boosts as a 24-hour turn around takes about 21 days in reality.

The inability to make decisions is not limited to administrative agencies. In fact, the worst culprit of this practice is the state legislature which in recent years has taken to enacting laws that they then schedule for repeal some three or five years down the road. In other cases, lawmakers love to put off making decisions by calling for a study or a task force.

It is this inability to make decisions that more than anything else is crucial to the future of the state’s economy. To a large degree, this inability to set a direction for the state has contributed to the erosion of public confidence in elected leaders. Without this confidence, those who would otherwise invest capital in Hawaii have gone elsewhere. If elected officials cannot guarantee certainty, that is that they will not change the rules in the middle of the game, then investors will look elsewhere.

Thus, while Hawaii’s heavy burden of taxes and regulation are certainly factors of consideration for investors, something must also be said about the attitude that government has toward business and the uncertainty that government gives to the investors by not being definitive and decisive. Government’s track record in this area is nothing of which to be proud.

So, if government leaders are truly sincere about turning this economy around, there must be an attitude change – that making a profit is healthy for the community. Elected officials must also send a strong message that the community has decided to support entrepreneurship, that they will not devise more ways to control and regulate business, and more importantly that the relationship is one of partnership.

What is daunting is that there doesn’t appear to be much hope that there is a change of attitude in government. Given the track record of this past legislative session, it appears that attitudes have not changed, that the same bad habit of not making decisions is the norm. Both lawmakers and administrators appeared to do nothing more than thrash about trying to tread water just to stay afloat.

What voters are looking for are public officials who will make up their minds and start swimming for shore rather than waiting for the magic miracle to save them from drowning. That’s the difference between making decisions and ducking them. That’s evidence of leadership.

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