In a recent presentation made to a group of public employees, the discussion turned to what the future will look like for state government and those on the public payroll.
Surprisingly, those in attendance seem to agree that government will have to downsize in order to avoid a fiscal calamity. On the other hand, how this downsizing is accomplished and who will be affected elicited a variety of responses. The public employees generally agreed that state government has about reached its limits in finding new revenues and therefore some other approach is necessary to balance the state’s books.
Many agreed that in the end, the fiscal situation will probably mean a reduction in the size of the public payroll. That being the case, then ways would have to be found to provide the same level of services with less people. One worker pointed out that for all the talk at the legislature about high technology, state government is the least equipped with modern technology that will allow workers to do more in the same eight-hour day.
The example the worker noted was the marriage license bureau where applicants are asked to take a paper form and fill it out in long hand. Once the applicant is finished, they take it inside to an employee who then takes the written information and inputs it into the computer. What should have been an easy one step with the data being entered by the applicant right onto a computer diskette, the current practice now takes two steps, with the form filled out once by the applicant and again out by the state worker.
It is estimated that it takes nearly a half day for the applicant for a marriage license to secure all the necessary forms and certificates. Looking at it from the public employee’s perspective, just how many more applications could be processed if the data entry went from the applicant directly into the computer?
No doubt the number of applicants the employee could process in an eight-hour day could increase substantially. Or in the alternative, the number of public employees needed to process marriage license applications could be reduced.
While union leaders may not relish the idea of one less person on the public payroll and therefore one less “dues-paying” member, the possible alternatives could be devastating for those public employees who remain. With dwindling revenues and the politically unsavory notion of raising taxes, the only alternative left on the table is for government officials to contain expenditures. This strategy could take the form of lay-offs, a reduction in hours worked, or even an across-the-board pay cut for all public employees. This latter strategy was the action the territorial government took during the height of the Depression.
While there may be officials who think that some tax and revenue stones remain unturned, the citizens of Hawaii, both those on the public payroll as well as in private sector, know that Hawaii has reached the limit. Any further attempt to raise taxes will only exacerbate Hawaii’s economic outlook. Even increases in the “sin” taxes of tobacco and alcohol have pushed the upper limits. Both of these tax sources have been tapped out and further increases will actually have the opposite effect of a reduction in tax collections as consumers are priced out of affordability.
Hopefully as the community moves forward, all sides need to realize that greater flexibility in solving the problems facing Hawaii will be needed. Down-sizing, right-sizing or whatever people want to call it, state government has grown to be much more than the people or the state’s economy can support. At the same time, to insure that those public services which are important to the health and safety of society continue to be provided, ways must be found to provide them more efficiently. Productivity in the public workforce must be improved. If all sides dig in their heels, then the future of Hawaii is doomed. Let’s hope that those who are in the driver’s seat have the best interest of the community at the top of their agenda.