Which Services Don’t You Want?

There’s been a lot of talk recently about the size of government – recently, in this case, meaning since about, oh, 1776. Today’s Tea Party folks seem to think that big, bloated government is the root of all that ails us. President Obama seems to think that there is no problem too big (or small) for government to fix.

This may, in fact, be the longest running debate in the United States: What exactly is the role of government in our lives, what services do we want it to provide and how much do we want to pay for it? Because once you have a Constitution and 27 amendments to it, the first 10 of which comprise our Bill of Rights, you assume a government to protect and enforce those rights – in short, to govern.

The subject of government size and reach most recently came up in the debate over health care and health insurance. I recall one anti-Obama guy shouting at a person in a wheelchair at an Ohio rally, “Health care is not a right!”

And I wondered: What about public education – is that a right?

Good roads and street lights? Bike paths?

Clean running water? Health and sanitation – garbage collection and landfills? Sewage treatment? Flu vaccines?

Public safety – cops, firefighters and EMTs? Jails and prisons?

Tsunami and hurricane warning systems?

Parks and pools? Libraries? Airports and harbors? Bus service?

A train?

Where do we draw the line? And at what point exactly does government get “too big”?

I couldn’t help thinking about these questions when I was asked to help judge the annual Governor’s Awards for state workers last month.

In reading through a thick notebook with 49 multipage nominations in three categories – employee, manager and team – I was repeatedly amazed first by the intelligence, creativity and dedication of so many state workers, and second because I didn’t realize all the varied things state workers do.

Here’s a sampling: * Say what you will about federal stimulus dollars, but Jeff Chang, a manager with Transportation’s Airports Division, helped secure $47 million to upgrade Honolulu International Airport, including installation of solar panels. At seven DOT facilities statewide, solar panels will produce 1.2 billion kilowatt hours – enough to power 150 homes for a year.

* The importance of work done by Kevin Richards and colleagues in the Defense Department was emphasized on Feb. 27, the day of our tsu-mini. Although big waves never came, the tsunami inundation remapping they had performed played a part in evacuation plans.

Their two annual tsunami test alerts also played a part in the orderly official response.

* Similarly, George Burnett, a manager with Civil Defense, was instrumental in securing $14.2 million in federal funds to upgrade and maintain our outdoor siren warning system, including installation of solar-power warning sirens. He also found a way to reach deaf and hearing-impaired citizens in times of emergency.

* When coqui frogs were first found at a Waimanalo nursery in the summer of 2009, Derek Arakaki of the Agriculture Department and his team sprayed citric acid on the site, which ended the horrific shrill cries of the nocturnal coquis. Nocturnal, meaning Arakaki and his team worked a lot of nights. Over the next 11 months, coquis were found at seven other sites around Oahu, and in each case, the Ag folks able to stop the infernal, sleep-disrupting frogs. Having been kept awake all night by coquis in Hilo a couple of years ago, to me this is a real quality-of-life contribution.

* Foster kids throughout Hawaii have a great friend in Lynne Kazama of Human Services. With many foster kids being native Hawaiian, she actively recruited would-be foster parents through Hawaiian organizations. She also set up the Leeward side’s first protective receiving home for kids removed from their families. And she helped establish a program so foster kids can stay in touch with siblings and other supportive family members.

* Ernest Lau, a manager with Accounting and General Services, was responsible for a plan that will cut energy and water usage at 10 state buildings in the downtown area by 30 percent, saving about $3 million a year. Lau’s DAGS staff was also nominated for team of the year.

* Any parent who is supposed to receive monthly child support payments knows what a hassle it can be, including waiting for checks in the mail. Gary Kemp, a manager in the Attorney General’s office, expanded the use of direct deposit for recipients, as well as creating a program in which recipients use debit cards to receive payments. He also coordinated with cell phone providers to use cell phone information to locate deadbeat parents.

* The AG team was also nominated – the debit card program saves the state $130,000 annually in paper, postage and banking fees while better serving clients. The agency had previously processed 1,800 checks every business day.

* Hawaiian Homelands has been a bitter point of contention for many native Hawaiians, but Mona Kapaku, a manager in HHL, works so tirelessly for home-land beneficiaries and those on waiting lists, they have asked in public meetings that she continue to represent them. This is, as her nomination said, “unprecedented.”

* Ronald Randall, a manager with Taxation, helped set up the Fresh Start program that allows individuals who had not filed taxes or under-reported income to come forward and pay the taxes without fearing prosecution. The result: $14 million for the state, including settlements.

* As my pharmacist father used to say about doctors, 50 percent of them graduated in the bottom half of their class. The Doctor Discipline team in Commerce and Consumers Affairs came up with some creative ways to prevent bad doctors from practicing, by working with the state Medical Board to allow voluntary surrender of a medical license as an alternative to revocation or suspension. This led to quicker resolution of cases and less staff time consumed.

Also working with the Medical Board, and having found that mere fines were not enough to change the behavior of bad docs, they began recommending in certain cases probation and long-term monitoring of proven bad docs. Hawaii thus jumped from a national worst No. 51 in physician discipline to 10th.

* Part of Olomana School’s role in the DOE is to provide classes at the Youth Correctional Facilities in Kailua. The team came up with an out-of-the-box way of rotating kids through educational programs, which cut down conflicts and other distractions, while expanding education into graphic arts, welding and agriculture.

* The Health Department’s H1N1 flu team’s response reads like a medical mystery novel, with testing at multiple labs. Critics might say that the “swine flu” never materialized into the pandemic many feared, but you can also argue the rapid response of health officials had a lot to do with that.

* Hawaii farmers who grow and export flowers were in danger of going out of business – worth $54 million annually just on the Big Island – when California suspended all shipments after finding several nematodes (roundworms) in shipments. The Plant and Environmental Protection Sciences team’s creative – and seemingly counter-intuitive – measure of dipping plants into 120-degree water for 12 minutes killed the worms, and actually increased plant shelf life. The team also took up the fight against coqui frogs, published 55 scientific papers and generated nearly $2 million in federal grants.

OK, so this may not be the most exciting column I’ve ever written, or you’ve ever read. But that’s government work – unless you’re a policy wonk, it’s usually not very exciting. We in Hawaii are fortunate to have so many good people working (and wonking) for us.

As for the questions posed at the beginning of this column, you’ll find no answers here. That’s for you to decide for yourself – which of these services do you want, and which don’t you want?

But I do hope this column leads to a greater understanding of what our state government does, and contributes to a reasonable and civil conversation among fellow citizens on this most essential of American arguments.

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