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Blowing Public Confidence in Government

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By Lowell L. Kalapa

Media observers and political pundits decry the waning participation of voters at the polls citing the falling number of registered voters and otherwise eligible, but unregistered voters, who don’t show up at the polls.
The usual reaction you hear from voters is “Ah, they are all a bunch of crooks, you can’t trust them, they don’t do anything anyway.” So they ask, “Why go out and vote.” They just don’t see their vote counting or making a difference.
And who can blame those voters after what has gone on in state and county government here in Hawaii. State officials blew a more than half billion dollar surplus at the beginning of the 1990’s. Afraid of the backlash at the polls, they shied away from raising taxes but resorted to imposing all sorts of user fees and charges as a way to make up the shortfall in revenues. And to make it appear that they were reducing the size of government, they spun off what used to be funded by general taxes into special funds underwritten by all those user fees and charges.
Now officials proclaim that government has downsized as they proudly haul out the number of public employees paid through the general fund and cover up the number of employees paid with special funds and totally ignore the temporary and “emergency hire” employees some of who have been emergency hires for more than a decade.
Then there is the fiasco of the Felix decree and the millions of dollars that no one seems to know where they were spent. After more than eight years, lawmakers are only now waking up to the fact that no one seems to have a handle on just where the money is and who is doing what. As the horror stories emerge, taxpayers can only shake their heads in disbelief. No wonder taxpayers refuse to accept any kind of tax increase and who can blame the beleaguered taxpayer when money is being wasted in the manner that lawmakers are only now uncovering.
Now, the administration has come forward with yet another proposal that strikes a blow at what little confidence voters have left in government. In order to balance the budget and make up for a nearly $315 million shortfall in state tax revenues forecasted for this biennium, the administration is recommending that lawmakers raid the hurricane relief fund which currently has a balance of $213 million. And since that is not enough to make up for the revenue shortfall, the administration is recommending that the liquor tax be doubled.
When lawmakers established the hurricane relief fund in 1993, it was to address the fact that insurers had fled the market and the mortgage lenders threatened to call all their loans because there was no insurance available for hurricane damage. So a state fund was established to provide hurricane disaster coverage to the state’s homeowners who in turn paid premiums into the fund for that coverage. The understanding was that the state would buy reinsurance to provide the necessary coverage. There was never any intent that these premiums were to be used to pay for other state programs or to balance the budget. Because not all the premiums were used to purchase reinsurance, the money was held in the fund.
Now while it would be difficult to refund those excess moneys back to individuals because one would have to determine who gets how much, the very idea of using that money to pay for state government raises many questions about the appropriateness. So can one blame homeowners for wanting that money back? As insurers and weather observers point out, it is not a matter of IF Hawaii will have another hurricane, BUT WHEN that hurricane will occur. As some point out, Hurricane Iniki occurred almost ten years after Hurricane Iwa, and this year marks exactly ten years since Iniki. It would seem more appropriate, if not prudent, that those funds remain in the hurricane relief fund should and when another hurricane disaster occur.
More importantly, it is not so much the money and the bailout but the lack of integrity on the part of elected officials that is really at stake here. If elected officials go back on their word and take the money, can we as taxpayers and voters ever believe elected officials again?
This shaking of the public confidence in elected officials is really what is at stake here. And if they do take the money, it is a validation of that perception that voters can’t trust their elected officials. So can you blame that voter for not showing up at the polls?

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