By Lowell L. Kalapa, Tax Foundation of Hawaii

How many times during the closing days of the session have we heard the lament that lawmakers have slashed spending all they could and, therefore, that is why they had to resort to measures that would increase the cash flow from taxpayers?

Even some beneficiaries of state government’s largesse decried cuts in purchase of service contracts and other privatized services.  But the hard reality is that there is no money to be had in the sums that the state once enjoyed.  To be sure, the economic recession has a lot to do with the budget shortfall, but that is not the only reason for the gaping hole between the amount of tax revenues realized and the amount needed to fund the state budget.

The other major reason is that in recent years lawmakers have added this program or that project to the list of services to be provided from the state.  Many of these programs were seeded because some vocal minority of constituents got to their favorite legislator to initiate the new program or service.  And if monies were not available, lawmakers found ways to raise revenues without touching the sacrosanct lightening rod called “taxes.”  No, instead they resorted to a bevy of fees that they somehow justified as having a relationship to the new service or program.

In some cases lawmakers hid behind the cloak of motherhood and apple pie be it protecting the environment or creating sustainability.  While lawmakers set their eyes on being on the cutting edge of addressing what they perceived as the pressing needs of society, they forgot about the basic and core services of government.  From education to social services to public safety, many of these programs were taken for granted and it was believed that there would always be sufficient resources to operate those programs.  But as we have learned, the traditional sources of state funding are not impervious to the threats of economic recession.  As a result, lawmakers had to scramble to find ways to hold the state budget together.

So what will lawmakers do next year and what will the new administration propose to rein in the size of state government in the future?  Given the track record of state elected officials over the past two decades, it seems they don’t know how to pull back from spending more than what is available.  Lawmakers have a proven track record of merely adding more and more programs and services each year, all in the name of making sure that no one “falls through the cracks.”  But is that what our community really needs, a service for every squeak in the wheel and every ache in one’s side?  Or are we willing to revisit what the American enterprise system is all about?  Self -sufficiency!

If folks will think carefully and closely about from where we have come, one will realize that lawmakers have created an environment of entitlement.  From those on the welfare rolls to those who live off of state contracts to those who are on the public payroll, there is this attitude of being entitled to those tax dollars that we, as taxpayers, are asked to sacrifice.  Sorry, those tax dollars are not the right that the beneficiaries seem to think they are.  Taxpayers expect something in return for those hard-earned dollars and when government can’t produce the goods and services in a timely and efficient matter, then it is time to reexamine how those dollars are being spent and for what they are being spent.

So what should elected officials cut in spending if and how should they go about deciding what are critical and essential services?  After all, over the years all of the services provided by state government have been characterized as essential and core services.  But if one went back twenty or twenty-five years and examined what services were being provided by state government, that might be a very easy way to decipher what are essential services.  Use what services were defined as core services twenty or twenty-five years ago as the base line and then begin to examine what services and programs have been added since that time.

What we do know is that taxpayers can no longer carry state government of the size to which it has grown, that is not without destroying a way of life, precluding any kind of social or economic growth for our people, and give hope that the next generation will be able to call Hawaii home.  No, if state government continues on its present course there will be only those who can afford the heavy burden of taxes and those who must take handouts from state government.

Lowell Kalapa is the president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii

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