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Taking Leadership Seriously is the Key to the Future of Hawaii

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By Lowell L. Kalapa

     Amidst all the rancor that overshadowed the close of the 1999 legislative session, charges of inability to make hard decisions and unwillingness to make change seemed to ring over and over again.

But what is making hard decisions and change? One of the caveats to the measure that would reduce the pyramiding of the general excise tax is the feature that will phase-in the reduction of the tax rate on the sale of certain services over a six-year period.

Businesses claim that relief is needed immediately. Granted, everyone would like to see tax reductions sooner than later, but the phase-in is a reflection of the fact that both the administration and lawmakers did not have the political will to make reductions in the state budget to accommodate a quicker phase-in of the tax relief. The reason for the phase-in in the end was pure and simple – money.

It is that spending that really underlies the perception of the legislature as a “do nothing” body. After eight years of a bottomless barrel of money, lawmakers slammed into a brick wall about five years ago when they were told that the state was facing a serious financial shortfall. However, instead of tightening government’s collective belt, lawmakers and administration officials found ingenious ways to keep government operating at full tilt.

While officials claimed that reductions were made in state spending, the truth of the matter is that even more dollars are being spent and there are even more employees on the payroll than there were five years ago. No doubt the excuses sound legitimate, but they fall short of dealing with the hard reality. Sure no one can argue with spending on education, but it would seem to the logical person that with only a limited amount of resources, the answer is to shift spending priorities and therefore dollars from one program to another.

But that’s not what has happened. Instead both administration and the legislature tapped various resources, like raiding special funds, raised user fees and charges and this year dipped into the state retirement system to find more money to keep government as large as it has ever been.

Part of the Senate’s frustration with the former budget chief was that the administration’s balanced state budget relied on “spending restrictions” that the governor is supposed to make once the new biennium gets underway. In the confirmation hearing this issue came up and it was pointed out that the attorney general had rendered an opinion in the first year of her term that the state budget cannot be balanced by using spending restrictions since once money is appropriated it can be spent regardless. Thus, a balanced budget is one where revenues match or exceed spending.

Not only were Senators concerned about the balanced budget submission, but they were also unhappy about the fact that when the budget director was asked what the governor intended to restrict, they were refused the details. Thus, the administration gave lawmakers no clue as to what it thought should be lesser priorities for state spending.

Had the administration sent down a laundry list of what it believed could be cut out of state programs, the legislature could then possibly delete these items from the state budget. While the media coverage has taken sharp aim at the legislature largely because it just closed down, taxpayers should ask where is the leadership from the administration in helping to pare down the size of government?

If there is anyone who can suggest what programs can be cut or reduced it is the guy who oversees the day-to-day operation. The administration’s budget did not even suggest eliminating vacant positions which the Senate proposed to do. Vacant positions should have been a “no-brainer” for who would be offended if there is no one in the position?

Instead of these political fisticuffs, officials, both in the administration and the legislature, should spend the next few months deciding on how to reduce the size of government. If there is any issue that taxpayers should be enraged about it is that the truly tough decisions on how to slim down government were not made by either the administration or the legislature.

One has to ask: Where is the leadership if these officials cannot make the hard decisions?

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