Last week, we spoke of a bill in the legislature which, if passed by the legislature and approved by the voters in the 2018 general election, would authorize a substantial surcharge on real property to fund education.
Proponents of the bill will be strongly arguing to the Legislature to let the bill pass and let the voters decide its fate. Politicians can be strongly tempted by that argument. After all, if the amendment garners a majority vote of the people, then the politicians can’t be blamed for it, right?
Before that happens, we as voters need to be clear on exactly what we are voting for.
Now, two bills are moving through the legislature on this subject. One is the constitutional amendment, and the other is the implementing law. The law can be passed, but cannot become effective, without the constitutional amendment. The two bills are presented to legislators as a “package deal.” But only the constitutional amendment will be presented to the voters. According to the current version of SB 683, the voters will be asked, “Shall the legislature be authorized to establish, as provided by law, a surcharge on residential investment property and visitor accommodations to fund a public education for all of Hawaii’s children?”
Let’s look at the question carefully. The voters are asked to give power to the Legislature to impose real property tax to fund education. The voters are not going to be asked to approve the details.
The current version of SB 686, the implementing legislation, would if approved impose a surcharge of $7.50 per $1,000 of property value on “residential investment” properties that are valued at $2 million or more. But wait. If the constitutional amendment is approved, there is no reason why legislators can’t change the implementing legislation. It could be the year the amendment is approved, or the next year, or the year after that. They can change it to impose the surcharge on all “residential investment” property regardless of value. They can change the surcharge rate. They can play with the definition of “residential investment” property, because the constitutional amendment bill doesn’t tell us what that kind of property is. They can do all of these things because the constitutional amendment has given the legislature this power.
In other words, once the amendment passes, the genie is out of the bottle.
We need to ask ourselves if we want to or need to give the genie that much power. If we do, then we only have ourselves to blame for what happens when the genie does come out. If we don’t, then we should either kill the constitutional amendment or write strict limits into it.
Think of it this way. The constitutional amendment is the expression of what We the People are allowing our government to do to us. If we trust our legislature to exercise absolute power responsibly, then it may be okay to give the legislature absolute power. But if we don’t, we need to understand that it’s much easier to not let the genie out of the bottle, than it is to try stuffing the genie back into the bottle once it’s out.