With the legislative session just about half way done, it has become very apparent that lawmakers continue to dodge the accountability issue.
Instead of taking the responsibility for their actions, lawmakers seem to like to defer decisions as much as they can. What, you say?
Don’t they take votes on bills? Well, yes they take votes on measures, but the measures are moved along even though lawmakers know that the bills are flawed or have been intentionally flawed. For example, a favorite trick lawmakers employ is adding a defective effective date, making a bill become law on some date in the future like the year 2050.
They like to tell observers that an issue deserves further discussion, but the fact of the matter is that they don’t want to be held accountable for killing what is otherwise a bad measure. Why, you ask, would they want to prolong the pain of a bad proposal? Well, if that measure has a constituency, lawmakers don’t want to offend them, well at least not in the middle of the session. It is a lot more palatable to tell a constituency that time ran out at the end of the session and lawmakers just couldn’t get to their bill.
Indeed, it is all too often that the explanation given for moving a bill with serious shortcomings is that, “We’ll catch it in conference committee.” With this kind of attitude, lawmakers seem to pay little attention to the details of just how the proposal will work and who and what the measure will affect.
Another phenomenon which has plagued the legislative process over the past 10 years as the revenue growth has sputtered is that they have sought ways to pay for pet programs without raising taxes. Yes, they have raided special funds and were caught, but those special funds were a creation of their own.
Their initial forays into the creation of special funds during the late 1980s and early 1990s was to hide general funds at a time when the state treasury was flush with cash. But as those general fund revenues began to dry up, lawmakers went back and raided them to balance the general fund budget, rationalizing that they were once general funds anyway. But that left many of their pet projects for which the special funds had been established, high and dry. So lawmakers found a new device with which to raise the money they like to spend. This was the advent of the user fee as a revenue source.
It started with the conveyance tax because it was so manini — nickel per hundred dollars of value — they thought no one would notice. Lawmakers doubled it to a dime per hundred dollars of value and earmarked the increase for affordable rental housing and the state’s natural area reserve program. With no direct relationship between the source of funds and either of these two programs it was almost guaranteed that the mismatch would eventually become apparent. And so it has as lawmakers are being asked to double the tax again with, again, the increase going to these programs. And don’t worry it will only apply to rich people and commercial property because the increase affects only properties worth more than $600,000.
Then there are all of the fee increases at the department of commerce and consumer affairs — a fact that the previous director denied, but the current director agreed were too high. Again, all of these revenues from licensing and registration fees went into a special fund, so no one paid close attention to how high they were or how those funds were being spent, because they “belonged” to those funds.
This year, lawmakers, as well as community leaders, have “discovered” how serious the use of “ice” is here in Hawaii. Well-meaning as they may be, lawmakers decided to address the problem by setting up a drug strike force and establishing a program to treat abusers of “ice.” Well, short on funds, lawmakers decided to look to some “new” source to fund this treatment program — the fee charged to affix the stamp on cigarettes. The fee is supposed to cover the cost of stamping because lawmakers did not want to take it out of cigarette tax revenues. It was never intended to be a source of revenues. While lawmakers may think this is clever, they should be ashamed that they have given only lip-service to the treatment of this drug problem.
If the dilemma of “ice” use is of a high priority, then money should be appropriated in the state budget to deal with this issue. By relegating it to be funded by this fee is telling us that this is not a high priority.
So much for responsibility and accountability.
”’Lowell L. Kalapa is the president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, a private, non-profit educational organization. For more information, please call 536-4587 or log on to”’ http://www.tfhawaii.org