Hawaiian 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. About the only parts of the state untouched by the foul economy are its sparkling beaches and world-class surfing.
Hawaii’s money troubles are creating a society more befitting a tropical backwater than a state celebrating its 50th anniversary and preparing to welcome US President Barack Obama home for Christmas this week.
“There is community energy and outrage building up,” said James Koshiba, a cofounder of the activist organization and Web site Kanu Hawaii, speaking about the cuts to education. “The people have to play a bigger role. Folks won’t forget how this unfolds come election time.”
Hawaii now has the shortest school year in the US after the state and teachers union agreed to shutter schools for 17 days a year, leaving 171,000 students without class on most Fridays. Negotiations to reopen them collapsed last week.
Food establishments often go uninspected, a fact highlighted by an Internet video showing rats roaming freely across produce in a Honolulu Chinatown market. The state has just nine health inspectors on Oahu to handle nearly 6,000 markets and restaurants.
The state Elections Office said it may not be able to afford a pending special election, which would leave half of the population without representation in the US House of Representatives until next September.
Homelessness is on the rise as mental health, child abuse, welfare and daycare programs run short on cash. And next year may be even worse because tax revenues continue to plunge with the economy.
Hawaii is not 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 US$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.
Hawaii Governor 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.”
Honolulu’s shortage of health inspectors 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, the Internet blogger and political watchdog who posted the rat video. “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 US Representative Neil Abercrombie plans to resign 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.