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Quit Being All Things to All People, We Can’t Afford

posted in: Weekly Commentary | 0
By Lowell L. Kalapa
(Released on 6/21/09)

Cold hard reality is beginning to set in as public employees’ unions prepare to do battle in the courts over whether or not the governor has the ability to order furloughs of their membership.

In recent weeks, the media has shed light on the impact of those furloughs on individuals and families as well as on the economy as a whole. And while there is great sympathy, if not empathy, for the financial and morale impact it will have on individuals and families, the cold hard truth is that there is no money, period, bottom line. While it is heart-warming to hear the stories of teachers who realize that they really can’t stop working for three days a month, the question is where will the money come from to compensate those teachers?

And what about furloughing prison guards and public safety officers? If those public employees don’t work, then who will safeguard the public from the incarcerated criminals or will Hawaii have to consider what California is now considering, that is, releasing the nonviolent criminals from prison?

The same questions arise on the county level – should furloughs be considered for “essential” workers such as police or fire personnel or for that matter garbage collectors and sewer workers? For those with long memories, who can forget the UPW strike of the late 1970’s when trash containers overflowed at the city parks or the bathrooms at the airports reeked of bad odors? We all gained a better understanding of who and what “essential” workers are.

And perhaps the point that should not be missed in these difficult financial straits for the state and county governments is what are truly “essential” public services that we cannot do without for the sake of the health and welfare of the public? Another way policymakers might want to look at which public services are essential and which are luxuries, is to ask what sort of public services were performed say 20 years ago and what sort of services and programs have been added since? The next step is to question how necessary are some of those programs and services that have been added since and can they be forgone.

In other words, what is the role of state and county government that taxpayers view as essential to the health and safety of the community. No doubt services such as public safety, like police and firefighters, have to be at the top of the list along with teachers, as nearly everyone will agree that education certainly is a function that improves the quality of life for the entire community. And while the litany will trail off as everyone has his or her own idea of what are essential public services, one might begin at the other end and ask what are not essential public services programs.

Right at the top, one has to admit that government has absolutely no business dictating which enterprise should survive and which business deserves a public subsidy. It is one thing for government to create a supportive and nurturing environment that helps and not hinders the development of enterprises, but when government decides to select this or that business for a subsidy paid by all other taxpayers, that then crosses the line between what is or is not a government function.

Therefore, it is surprising that the very public union leaders who profess that their membership works for the general good of the community would not stand up and object that public resources are being taken from public programs and services and benefitting only a single type of business or enterprise for which there is no direct public purpose.

Such is the case of the targeted business tax credits that have become the bane, if not the drain, on the public treasury. Public policymakers were more than willing to subsidize industries such as high technology or ethanol plant development at the expense of more expensive school lunches and the furloughs that have come to be despised.

But advocates continue to decry any attacks on these subsidy programs arguing that these businesses will create the jobs of the future and foster economic development for the state. Apparently what they seem to lose sight of is the fact that if government cannot deliver the services needed by today’s generation, then will there even be another generation around to take on those great jobs?

If government cannot educate today’s students, then who cares what those jobs of tomorrow look like? It is time to return to “essentials!”

Lowell L. Kalapa is the president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii. Mr. Kalapa’s commentary is printed each week in the Maui News, West Hawaii Today, Garden Isle News, and the HawaiiReporter.com.

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