| People ask all the time, Just how did Hawaii get into this financial and economic mess? And what happened to all that surplus we had a few years ago?
The old saying goes, money is the root of all evil. Indeed, in this case having a lot of money as the state had during the late 1980’s and early 1990’s contributed to the dilemma that we now face. Rolling in dough, lawmakers were beseeched by constituents and supporters to fund this or that program. And despite warnings that the high tide of good economic times would not last forever, lawmakers and administration officials appropriated tax dollars as if they were going out of style.
In fact, elected officials went so hog wild that they violated the constitutional spending limit that ties the level of spending to the growth in the state’s economy. When the 1990 Tax Review Commission advised lawmakers to reduce the burden of taxes, administration officials labeled the Commission’s recommendations as “irresponsible.” It was anyone’s guess what those officials meant by irresponsible as state spending continued to grow.
If there was any indication of being irresponsible, it was the ways officials found to spend hard- earned tax dollars. For example, there was one appropriation bill that proposed bringing in some rotting hulk of a rowboat because someone had sailed it all the way across the Pacific. Koa benches were another symptom of this drunken spending.
More importantly, it was the arrogance with which elected officials approached this situation. They were more than eager to satisfy the spending demands of the various constituencies they represented. On the other hand, they tended to ignore the pleas of more rationale observers that taxes should be reduced.
The result is what we have today in state government: more workers than are necessary to provide services that could probably be done better by private providers; inefficient and top heavy administration of public programs – more chiefs than Indians – in an era where most private companies have streamlined their operations; and a system where it takes months to secure a purchase order for classroom supplies such that it drives teachers to spend their own money for supplies instead of hassling with the bureaucracy.
And why did this system continue to grow? It is because elected officials just could not say no to constituent pressure. It is because elected officials lost sight of who they represent. Instead of the taxpayer, elected officials saw themselves as Santa Claus trying to please everyone who came with a wish list.
Now that the economy has hit a brick wall and revenues have dried up, elected officials are caught in a bind. The buck is passed back and forth between the legislature and the state administration. The administration submits a budget predicated on “restrictions” that the governor will make during the course of the fiscal biennium. The legislature is offended because the administration will not specify what those restrictions will be. The legislature, in turn, passes a budget that funds nearly everything the administration requests with the intent of dropping the ball in the administration’s lap.
This will leave the task of cutting government spending to the administration on an “at will” basis. This is not a responsible way of re-engineering government in Hawaii. How large government is and what shape it takes and the kinds of services to be provided should really reflect the wishes of the community as embodied by the legislature. If the body which represents the community at large does not participate in the down-sizing of government, then those cuts in spending will have very little support. The result is that the prospects of moving other legislation through the policy making body will be difficult.
In order to affect cuts in state spending and a down-sizing of the current government structure, lawmakers and administrators need to cooperate and work together on what government will look like in the future. If not, then there will be pressure to find ways to maintain programs either by stealing more money from other sources or by raising taxes.
Therefore, it is important that elected officials have the political will to say no to continued government spending and the proposal that taxes be increased.
By Lowell L. Kalapa