A couple of weeks ago, state lawmakers moved out of the House a version of the state budget and to many the surprise came in the form that found the chair of the finance committee admitting that 800 more jobs were included in the proposed spending plan for the next two years.
The explanation for this increase in the public payroll was that these were essential jobs in the area of education, termed an “investment in the future.” And who could argue that spending tax dollars on education wasn’t a good idea? After all, our children are our hope for the future.
What was missed in all of the tear-jerking speeches and interviews was that these jobs were in addition to the existing positions within state government. It was not like lawmakers decided to shift funding from one type of state employee to another, in this case, teachers. No, these teaching positions come in addition to those already on the public payroll.
Now that strategy might make sense if the state was rolling in dough, but it is not. In fact, the piggybank is rattling the few last cents left over from past years. The state administration is already forecasting that the state general fund surplus will drop to the dangerously low level of $39 million. Even that number may be optimistic as various departments have come to the legislature during the past several weeks requesting “emergency” appropriations.
For example, the child mental health programs which are administered by the departments of health and education came in with a request of $42 million just to get through the current year which will end on June 30th. In the hearing on this request, one Senator asked if this wasn’t the first time that the department had requested emergency funding for this program. Of course not, this practice of requesting emergency funding for child mental health programs is a continuous practice.
The Senator went on to ask why this has become such a habit and why the department could not figure out what it needed when it submitted its budget or for that matter, why the department has not figured out a more efficient way to deliver the same services. While officials explained that they are working on it, the observation by the Senator was on point, why was it taking so long for the departments of education and health to figure out how to better deliver those services.
Unfortunately, this is the problem that has led to the financial crisis now faced by the state. It is so much easier to do things as they always have been done. Change comes all too slowly in the public sector. The result is that government has become a monolith that cannot move with agility or provide services at the least cost.
Lawmakers need to quit making excuses for their inability to reduce spending and the size of state government. Either they take the task into hand and cut the size of government or get out of office. There are no if’s, ands or buts, for if they do not pare down the size of the state budget, rein in the number of positions, Hawaii as a whole will be doomed. The time is over for lawmakers, as well as taxpayers, to cross their fingers and squint their eyes tightly in hopes that the economy is going to turn around. Not only will the size and cost of government continue to grow by doing nothing, but the lack of change will only confirm what everyone has come to learn, that there is a lack of leadership in government.
Now, those in office might consider this heresy, but think about it. Because our political leaders are unwilling to change, unwilling to reduce the size of government and therefore unable to reduce the heavy burden of taxes and regulations on businesses and individuals, people have lost hope and become more cynical and distrustful of their elected officials. People no longer believe what their political leaders tell them. As a result, it is and will be difficult for those in office to turn the ship of state if they continue on the path of status quo.
Is all lost? No, lawmakers have just over twenty-five working days to redeem themselves and regain the confidence of the public. The question is – will they be able to reduce the size of government and therefore alleviate the pressure for any tax increases like those proposed by the administration? Will they be able to actually find ways to pay for the alleviation of the pyramiding effect of the general excise tax and to exempt exported services from the tax?
True, elected officials have not been good stewards of our tax dollars or for that matter of our community. But the message was sent last November, “It is the economy, lo-lo!” Only time will tell, but in the meantime, keep reminding your legislature that they have a promise to fulfill and a trust that cannot be broken.