By Lowell L. Kalapa
As lawmakers head into the homestretch, it has become increasingly more apparent that all of the forewarnings of financial disaster for the state are more of a reality than a pipedream.
The insanity of raiding the hurricane fund while increasing the state workforce by more than 1,500 new positions makes the taxpayer wonder if lawmakers really understand the gravity of the financial situation of the state. Refusing to reduce the size of government in the hopes that the state’s economy will take a turn for the better is like squeezing your eyes real tight and hoping that when you open them the big bad monster won’t be there.
Well, despite all the hoopla and public relations push of the business department about how great Hawaii is as a place to do business, lawmakers were considering some pretty bad legislation that would discourage any investor from wanting to start up a business in the state. There were bills to require employers to grant time off for employees who needed to deal with a domestic violence situation involving anyone the employee knew or was involved with. The employee didn’t have to be in the domestic violence situation, and the situation didn’t have to involve the spouse or partner of the employee, it just had to be anyone the employee knew.
There also was the bill to require any business which buys out an existing business to retain 50% of the employees from the prior owner’s operation. Then there are those bills to impose caps or price controls on health care premiums and the cost of gasoline – both politically popular but without economic merit as we all learned about price controls under the Nixon administration more than 30 years ago.
There is the bottle bill that amounts to nothing more than a new tax, generating $24 million for more public employees, money that if lawmakers wanted to raise taxes could have gone to pay for teachers or social services which may have to be cut because of the revenue shortfall. It is a hidden tax that will make it more expensive to put food on the table all in the name of trying to address less than 1% of the solid waste stream in the state.
So despite all the hype that Hawaii is a great place to do business, the actions of the legislature certainly don’t seem to back up all the fluff. The result is that the economy will continue to lumber along and tax collections will also be lackluster. So much for closing your eyes and hoping that the financial mess of the state will go away.
So, there lawmakers sit, trying to find ways to pay for all the pet programs and services they have added on to the state budget over the years. And there sit all the programs they don’t want to cut because there is some constituency for this or that program. In the meantime, they are unwilling to raise taxes because they need to get re-elected this fall and that is the very last thing they want to do, offend the taxpayer.
So now they are stuck, they are approving a budget that is much too large and one that is balanced on string and rubber bands called raiding special funds and nickel and diming consumers with this or that fee or user charge.
So instead of putting their noses to the grindstone and demanding that priorities be set for state services, elected officials are passing the problem along to the next legislature which will be even more hard-pressed to avoid raising taxes while trying to stimulate the economy. Hopefully voters and taxpayers will not forget this pathetic drama of indecision and lack of will.
If lawmakers can’t bear cutting spending, then they should raise taxes and then taxpayers will really know what a disaster the finances of the state are in. But no, they hide behind the financial “smoke and mirrors” of shifting money between funds and accounts hoping that no one will notice.
So you ask, why don’t they cut spending if they don’t want to raise taxes? Well, elected officials are just as afraid of offending some groups of interested citizens out there. Setting priorities would mean just that, not funding some program that may have a vocal minority.
So what is the solution to this dilemma? Perhaps the best advice in choosing elected officials the next time around is to ask whether or not a candidate can just say “No.” That means being able to say “No” to tax and fee increases, “No” to programs which are not core or essential to the health and safety of the community, and “No” to programs when the money runs out.