Neal Milner: When Already? Hawaii Policymakers Just Can't Get Past The Planning Stage - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Efforts to build a new stadium and a new prison on Oahu have stalled for years. And the Hawaii Tourism Authority lives on.

Say hello to the upside-down world of Hawaii policymaking where planning means we really don’t have one and deliberation means no one has a clue.

“When” is the ultimate question in politics because policies and laws are just empty words until they are put into effect and implemented.

When will the public see the results? When will the stuff the legislators passed get implemented? When will the damn thing finally be finished?

But really, the question in Hawaii is not just “when?” It’s “when already, when already?”

Policymakers here have developed a language to explain these delays away, to obfuscate them, deflect and put on a pretty face.

This language uses words that on the surface indicate progress but in fact indicate the opposite.

Here’s how this works regarding the new stadium, Hawaii Tourism Authority and the proposed new jail.

When Will We Have A New Stadium?

Aloha Stadium construction and maintenance were badly flawed from the start. After decades of stumbling, deferred-maintenance marches and $20 million already spent on planning fees (not a misprint), the new stadium has gotten nowhere slow.

So, the true answer to when we will have a new stadium is, “Who the hell knows? We don’t even have a plan yet.”

That’s not the answer the public gets, though. The answers we get make it appear that all these pieces are about to fit together just so.

Hawaii has already spent more than $20 million on planning for a new stadium, but there’s still no progress. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

Like there is an effective planning process in place. But there isn’t.

Real planning involves two stages. The first is about opening, where you generate as many scenarios as possible. The other is closing where you systematically narrow the alternatives and make a choice.

Long after it should be, the state is still in that opening phase — talking about alternatives and scenarios ranging from a huge multipurpose stadium even bigger than Aloha to a too-small-for-Division I football venue with public high school-style bleachers and no roof. 

Earlier on, this would be called brainstorming. Too late. Now it’s become wandering in the wilderness.

And, worse, it looks like the state may be able only to afford that trimmed-down, dumbed-down roofless version that might as well be named Bobby Sox Park.

To ease that financial burden and build a venue that doesn’t give fans sunstroke, there is talk — always talk — of bringing a developer into this picture with a — may I have a drumroll please — public-private partnership.

This is all still tentative and speculative, another pathway with an uncertain end. And after all this time. 

So, dressing this up as a planning process is just that — dressing up. Just because you dress up like Prince doesn’t mean you can sing “Purple Rain.”

In fairness, Gov. Josh Green inherited this overhyped mess, but it’s his job now. And his language, which follows the same old pattern of optimism and euphemisms while the miasma gets even more miasmatic.

When Will The State Move On From The Hawaii Tourism Authority?

For several years legislators have given every indication that it was time to deep-six the HTA. 

Compared to the dramatic distaste they’ve shown toward this beleaguered agency, Sen. Donna Kim’s criticism of the University of Hawaii is a love sonnet.

The entire past legislative session, it seemed like HTA’s time was up.

Instead, legislators gave the agency no funds but more or less guaranteed that the governor would come through with money to keep the agency chugging along anyway.

It’s a “Leave It to Beaver” episode. Mrs. Cleaver takes the car keys away from Wally knowing full well that Mr. Cleaver will give them back when he comes home.

Why did legislators do this after so much posturing, threatening and disgust? What kind of planning is that? 

Rep. Sean Quinlan, who was very much involved with the HTA issue, had an answer.

It’s good planning, he said, because it’s part of an “iterative” process.

Nice try. But what happened is not iterative at all.

Iterative means doing something again and again to improve it, like practicing a difficult passage on the piano or looking at an idea from all different angles.  

According to that model, over the coming months, legislators will work together to build on their existing knowledge, and voila!

But if you consider the Legislature’s track record with HTA, its repeated efforts aren’t indication of improvement. They’re indications of flailing, and blustering — of showing more frustration than direction and when the chips are down.

Iteration can be a good way to develop policy. But it depends on how competent the iterators are. We’ll see, but for now the iterative process is not a plan. It’s just an aspiration based on after-the-fact rationalizations.

Oahu Community Correctional Center.
The Oahu Community Correctional Center is overcrowded and inmates live in harsh conditions, but efforts to build a new jail have stalled. (Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022)

When Will A New Jail Be Built?

The state has been talking about building a new jail on Oahu for the longest time. Hawaii’s prison conditions are awful, quite possibly unconstitutionally so.

Yet the plan to develop one up in Halawa has not just stalled. It’s disappeared. Dissipated. Poof.

A key reason for this inaction is the differences between those who want a jail without focusing on broader criminal justice reforms and those who want decarceration policies that would require a smaller facility.

Now, this debate between, to oversimplify, decarcerators and incarcerators is important and legitimate. It’s at the basis of so much criminal justice policy. It involves constitutional rights and peoples’ crime fears.

At the same time, the debate is unwinnable in the sense that neither side can ever overwhelmingly prevail and in fact shouldn’t.

Unable to get the sides together on this, the Legislature has decided to take no action until “something” can be worked out. By whom it’s not clear. Maybe the Tooth Fairy. Or the judges on “American Idol.”

The Legislature did allocate $10 million for a new jail, but the money is for, shades of the stadium process, planning. Yes, more planning. And that money won’t even be available until 2024.

So, we are stuck. No new jail, little legislative interest and the usual fallback of study groups and commissions while prisoners continue to live in subpar and likely illegal conditions.

That’s what I was thinking about when I read Civil Beat’s recent interview with retiring Hawaii Supreme Court justice Michael Wilson who remains involved in criminal justice reform.

But in this wide-ranging interview, he never gets around to that question.

Instead, he talks about the good people on the Hawaii Correctional System Oversight Commission, a new psychiatrist prison expert and a “dream team” of Hawaii people now working in the field.

Dream shream. What are the plans to deal with the basic difference about incarceration in a way that will make it possible to move forward on the prison?

Despite the pressing need, there is no plan. But hey, I guess, so what? They’re only prisoners.

How the upside-down policy world works:

Q. “When will we finally see results?”

A. “We have a plan.”

Sure you do.

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About the Author

Neal Milner

Neal Milner is a former political science professor at the University of Hawaii where he taught for 40 years. He is a political analyst for KITV and is a regular contributor to Hawaii Public Radio's "The Conversation." His most recent book is The Gift of Underpants. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Latest Comments (0)

I don't think it just CB writers that have become increasingly cynical of state and city government. I would hop that is is most of the population, aside from those that own companies profiting from all the studies. consultation and eventually construction. This "business as usual" method of failing to produce and just spending tax dollars, contributes to the cost of living for everyone and they we should all be vested in reforming government and electing people that actually represent the needs/wants of the public. Great article Neal.

wailani1961 · 3 months ago

Why you gotta insult the Bobby Sox like that?

Johnboy · 3 months ago

The problems plaguing the legislature can be described as "analysis paralysis."

incredibles2 · 3 months ago

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