By Lowell L. Kalapa
What is very frustrating from the taxpayer’s viewpoint is that as the fiscal crisis continues to grow, elected officials don’t appear to be able to set priorities for public programs.
Instead, it appears that elected officials are trying to hold the whole ball of wax together with paper clips and rubber bands. Instead of deciding which public programs are truly essential to the health, safety and welfare of the community, lawmakers and administration officials are beating the bushes to find what meager resources may have been overlooked in the past. The evidence of this practice can be found in bills like the one that takes the increase in the rental motor vehicle surcharge and moves the $11 million it will raise from the highway fund and puts it into the general fund.
The prospect that taxes will have to be increased because lawmakers are not able to set priorities for state government becomes more and more probable with each succeeding session. For example, this past session saw the administration suggest levying a new tax on automobiles while some senators toyed with the idea of raising the general excise tax. In the end it appears that the legislature approved a budget that will spend more than is forecasted to be available over the next two years.
So why can’t our elected officials set priorities for government? One obvious reason is that elected officials want to be reelected. That’s sort of a given. The problem then is that elected officials don’t like to make unpopular decisions like cutting this or that program. Elected officials want to be everybody’s best friend. Unfortunately, while they are being everybody’s best friend, they are doing no one a favor because in the end the money they like to spend has to come from someone and that someone is the taxpayer.
For years, elected officials loved to tax “the man behind the tree” which in this case was the tourist. Elected officials figured that if there was anyone they could tax who didn’t have a say in their reelection, it was the visitor to Hawaii. Attempts to raise the general excise tax so that visitors would pay more while a tax credit would be given to residents to offset the increased tax rates has floated through the state legislature for years. When the hotel industry finally capitulated on a room tax because they wanted to raise money to build the convention center, the legislature took advantage of this “puka” in the dike and levied a rate more than twice as high as the industry was willing to pay and then took the money and ran with it.
At the county level, the counties also sought ways to tax “the man behind the tree” by imposing higher tax rates on nonresidential properties and in particular hotel/resort properties as a way to keep those tax dollars coming. In some counties, elected officials also resorted to imposing fees that applied only to nonresidents or allowed a discount of those fees for residents – read voters.
All of these schemes were conceived because elected officials wanted to continue to spend to keep their constituents happy. The problem elected officials now face is that they have run out of imaginative new ways to extract more from the taxpayer. Even their favorite target, the visitor, is in short supply so elected officials are hard-pressed to impose any more taxes on what is already a struggling industry.
If lawmakers would only accept the fact that taxpayers and the economy are pretty well tapped-out and that the only remaining alternative is that they must make the hard decisions, they just might find that the public, the taxpayer, the voter is really in support of this strategy. Elected officials should constantly remind themselves that the people they like to please with their generous spending are also the people who have to pay the bills. Those same people want their elected officials to make those tough decisions. The flip side of that statement is that those taxpayers are tired of the indecisiveness that seems to pervade elected officials at all levels.
If elected officials want to win the support of their voters, they need to set priorities for government services and decide which programs and projects are not essential to the welfare of the community. They should “get the picture” that taxpayers are tired of shelling out their hard earned dollars while they are struggling to survive.