Taxes and tracking your odometer

Posted September 20, 2016 by Rachelle Chang
Categories: Government, Taxes

Tags: , , , , , ,

Hawaii Road Usage Charge Demo

The Hawaii State Highway Fund is funded by fuel taxes, vehicle registration fees, vehicle weight tax, and rental motor vehicle and tour vehicle surcharge taxes. Drivers pay 17¢ to the State of Hawaii, plus up to 17¢ to county governments per gallon of gasoline. The fuel tax currently funds 33% of the State Highway Fund.

Recently, the Hawaii Department of Transportation (DOT) revealed that it is considering a mileage-based user fee for highway maintenance, which would potentially replace the fuel tax. The DOT is planning a statewide pilot “road usage charge” (RUC) test in early 2017.

On the surface, this seems like a good idea. It seems fair. Like fuel taxes, the more you drive, the more taxes you pay. It taxes all vehicles equally, though it does not reward or encourage fuel-efficient vehicles.

But first, there are 5 critical questions that need to be answered:

  1. Do we need it? In fiscal year 2015, the State Highway Fund collected $86.8 million in fuel taxes, $76 million in vehicle weight taxes, $49 million in vehicle registration fees, and $51.9 million in rental/tour vehicle surcharge taxes, according to the Fiscal Year 2017 State Receipt and Revenue Plans (page 21). The DOT’s budget was $316 million to build and maintain highways, according to the Fiscal Year 2017 Executive Supplemental Budget (page 116). How much additional revenue does the Department of Transportation project to raise from mileage-based user fees?
  1. Can we afford it? The three-year pilot project is estimated to cost $19 million, which will be paid by Hawaii taxpayers (at least $12.5 million) and federal funds (approx. $6.5 million). Will the additional revenue collected from usage fees cover the cost to administer the program and increase revenues for the State Highway Fund?
  1. How will mileage-based use taxes affect tax collection? The DOT currently requires annual safety checks, in which odometer readings are collected. Would the mileage-based usage fee be collected at the time of the safety check? Will the DOT need to step-up enforcement of safety checks? How will an annual fee affect tax collection, compared with fuel taxes, which are collected at the time fuel is purchased? What kind of burden would this place on taxpayers, who would pay a lump-sum tax once a year? How would tax collection be affected if the proposal to create bi-annual safety checks (due to improved car manufacturing and safety standards) gains support in the legislature?
  1. How will odometer readings be used? Odometer readers are already collected during annual safety inspections, but will the DOT share this data with other agencies – such as insurance companies or employers? How will the DOT protect drivers’ privacy?
  1. Will the usage fee truly replace fuel taxes? This is the most significant concern. There is no guarantee that a mileage-based fee will replace the fuel tax, or add another level of fees. A new administration, new Congress-members, new department heads, and economic downturns are all opportunities to “extend” fees and taxes indefinitely.

I usually support user-based fees, because it places more of the burden for maintenance on those who make the most use of a service or facility. But when it comes to government, I am concerned that replacement taxes, like “temporary” taxes, never go away.

To review the grant proposal, visit http://hidot.hawaii.gov/administration/library/publications/.

How many miles to you drive in an average year? Do you support a mileage-based user fee? Would it make you change your driving habits?

Organized desk, organized life

Posted September 13, 2016 by Rachelle Chang
Categories: Business, Family

Tags: , , ,

Organized Desk

Recently I started a new job. On my first day, I walked into the office and found a desk covered in stacks of paper and an inches-thick inbox. Some stacks had sticky notes. Some stacks contained folders. Others contained loose papers. I felt overwhelmed.

I appreciated that these stacks of paper were things that I needed to do immediately – urgent tasks were not hidden away or filed. But they made me feel stressed when I came into work. In those first few days, my main goal was to clear the desk.

It took me a few weeks to work through those stacks and organize the office to where I knew where things went. I set up a desk calendar where I could write daily reminders. I got caught up in filing, and then vowed not to let the filing pile up again. I try to set aside 10 minutes to file papers every day.

I’ve read a lot of organizing advice, and it all boils down to these 3 tips that really work:

Handle each item only once – follow up, file it, or discard it. I’ve come across this advice many times, and it works for cleaning your home, your office, and your email. In practice, it’s really difficult to do, because not everything can be done right away, and we need to prioritize tasks. But I do file things in “pending” folders so that I can get to them later.

Write daily lists. Take 5 minutes at the start of the day to write down the things you need to accomplish. If you’re in the middle of a big project, you may want to take 5 minutes at the end of the day to write your task list for tomorrow.

This is easy for me to follow, because I’m a list-maker – I make lists for practically everything, from tasks to appointments to shopping to books I want to read. I’m addicted to the sense of accomplishment I feel when I cross something off the list.

Surround yourself with things that make you happy. I added a small ceramics piece that I use as a candy dish. I added a photo of my family to remind myself of why I work.

Once I organized my desk, I decided that I needed to organize my home office desk too. It was cluttered with binders, folders, office supplies, and other miscellany. I set out to clear off my desk and organize. I even cleared off a space so that my son can sit at my desk and do his homework.

Now I feel more relaxed. I can focus on my work, instead of being overwhelmed by work. An organized desk has helped me feel more in control of my life.

What does your desk look like? Is it a struggle to keep it organized?

Fiction: Memories of the Shore

Posted September 6, 2016 by Rachelle Chang
Categories: Fiction

Tags: , , ,

Memories of the Shore

Memories of the Shore
By Rachelle Chang

Come sit with me a while beside the shore;
We’ll catch a thing or two before we’re done,
And meanwhile sit with the sun bright overhead.
I haven’t come for years, since I was young
And liked to sit beside the shore and fish.
My dad would take me on a rare weekend,
Carrying our bamboo fishing poles
Strung with chord, and at the end, a hook
To which we’d fasten bread crumbs or some crust…
I never cared if I caught anything,
But I loved to sit beside my dad and fish
In the shade, in the quiet, sitting side by side.
And afterwards we’d drive for lunch someplace,
And I could walk with my dad as if I belonged.
But the fishing was better, I had him to myself
By shore or stream for half a day or more.
I don’t go fishing now, but when I do
I like to sit and not catch anything.
Keep company with me a little while;
I don’t often get the chance to be with you.

“Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness” by Deborah Schoeberlein David

Posted September 3, 2016 by Rachelle Chang
Categories: Book Reviews

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Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness

“Mindful Teaching and Teaching Mindfulness: A Guide for Anyone Who Teaches Anything” (2009) by education consultant and mindfulness trainer Deborah Schorberlein David with Suki Sheth, PhdD is a handbook for applying mindfulness to education. The goal is to teach kids how “to notice what they were doing in the moment so they could decide what to do next” (page xv).

“Mindfulness is a conscious, purposeful way of tuning in to what’s happening in and around us,” Schoeberlein states. It’s about how we experience things that we have little control over. She offers some quick and fun ideas to help us calm our minds, help us pay attention, and create a positive outlook for the day.

For teachers, mindfulness can promote emotional balance, focus and awareness. Here are 3 mindful activities for teachers:

  1. Take 5 Minutes. Sit still, turn off distractions, and focus on breathing (the experience of noticing your breath fill your lungs and flow out of your body).
  2. Mindful Greeting. In the morning, greet the day by noticing and appreciating the morning, like “Here I am” or “It’s morning.” Then set a positive intention for the day, like “I aspire to express more patience during [this activity] today.” Keep intensions specific, modest, and achievable.
  3. Mindful Beginnings. Stop what you’re doing slightly before the schedule requires you to. Stop pre-class tasks before students arrive and stop preparations before class begins, so that you can greet people with your full attention. Choose a method to get students’ attention so that they will want to pay attention, not because you tell them to pay attention. Try ringing a chime, clapping in a pattern, or asking a riddle. Make eye contact during roll call.

For students, mindfulness can promote attention and concentration, and provides tools to reduce stress. Here are just 4 of the mindful activities that Schoeberlein suggests for students:

  1. Mindful Memory. Assemble a dozen distinct objects on a table. Cover them with a cloth. Gather students and give them one minute to observe the objects before covering them again. Then ask students to write down as many objects as possible. This teaches them to pay attention to what they see.
  2. Field of Vision. Outdoors, select a 3” twig from the ground and explain that you are going to place it somewhere in the designated space. Tell them to look at you silently when they have found the twig. While their eyes are closed, pretend the place the twig – and then put it behind your ear. This teaches them that what you expect to see will affect what you notice.
  3. Walk with Awareness. Ask students to walk slowly and normally. Walk as if your ankle hurts. Walk as if you think everyone is watching. Walk as if you want to delay arriving. Walk as if you want to be unnoticed. Walk as if you don’t know where you are or where you are going. Walk while paying attention to every movement you make. This helps students notice their body and how their body expresses what they feel.
  4. Journaling Kindness. Write in the present tense about your experiences. Discuss what kindness means. Record an act of kindness you observe, an act of kindness you initiated, and a situation in which an act of kindness could have been helpful.

These mindful activities are engaging and clever, but I would have liked to see more suggestions for disruptive students – and ways teachers can persuade skeptical students. Some of the mindful activities are so clever that I want to try them with my son!

For me, the most positive advice is the acknowledgement that it’s okay to get distracted (you don’t have to be mindful all the time) and the reminder to be kind to yourself. The step-by-step instructions for teachers and students and the summary at the end of the book are very helpful, and many mindful activities can also be adapted for parents and coaches. For example, Mindful Greeting and Mindful Beginnings could be used by parents when they wake up children in the morning and get ready for school, and when they come home after work.

What small change could you make to become more mindful? If you try any of these mindful activities in the classroom or at home, please write back and tell us about it!

Summer movies and philosophy 2016

Posted August 30, 2016 by Rachelle Chang
Categories: Family

Tags: , , , , , ,

2016 Summer movies and philosophy

Summer movie blockbusters are usually big budget, big action, and big special effects extravaganzas. Sometimes you just want to be entertained by a movie, instead of being challenged or working hard to understand the motivations and consequences of the characters’ choices. And sometimes a little after-credits discussion is just what you need to get more out your movie tickets.

Here are 3 summer movies that give us something different to talk with our family, friends, and older children after the show is over: “Captain America: Civil War,” “Warcraft,” and “Star Trek Beyond.” Unfortunately, I didn’t see any family movies this summer; these three movies all deal with war, battles, and the need for teamwork.

Note: There are spoilers in this post, so please don’t read further if you haven’t seen the movies.

“Captain America: Civil War” (2016) is an action-packed thriller about acts of terrorism that provoke the government into imposing more controls over people with enhanced abilities. There’s really no reason for some of the fight scenes and explosions except pure entertainment.

* Friendship vs. upholding the law. Steve Rogers unequivocally believes that his friend Bucky is innocent, and helps him evade the police. He chooses his loyalty to his friend over upholding the law, without any evidence that Bucky is innocent. On the other hand, law enforcement preemptively assumes that Bucky is guilty based on a partial image and no evidence of Bucky’s guilt. How far would you go for friendship?

* Freedom vs. security. After the Battle of Sakovia, government leaders wanted to register and monitor all people with superpowers, so that such devastation couldn’t happen again. You could argue that the destruction was caused by Ultron, a product of technology – yet there were no calls for limits on scientific research. If you had a superpower, would you be willing to be registered, tagged, and monitored? Would you give up your freedom so that other people could feel safer? What if it’s not superpowers, but gun ownership?

* Trust individuals or government leaders. Tony Stark believes that people with superpowers should be registered, monitored, and called upon if there is an emergency. He believes that individuals cannot be trusted to do the right thing, because we are all flawed. Steve Rogers believes that people with superpowers should be free to act in an emergency, whereas government leaders may have different agendas and may not cooperate with other world leaders. He believes that individuals are basically altruistic and can be trusted to do the right thing. Who do you trust with power – individuals or government leaders? Who would you trust in a crisis?

“Warcraft” (2016) is an exciting fantasy about orc warriors who leave their dying world to take over a peaceful realm.

* Judging people by appearances. The humans on Azeroth seem to easily trust half-orc, half-human Garona because she looks human and speaks their language. Lady Taria gives Garona her first weapon. King Llane trusts her to become an orc leader and work for peace. Garona doesn’t actually do much to gain their trust, except speak to them, not try to escape, not attack them, and not betray them during battle (things a spy might do to gain their trust).

* Does might make right? Their world is dying and the orc leader Gul’dan believes that because they have superior strength, they have the right to invade other lands. He also believes that because he can control the fel, he has the right to gain power by killing others and force orcs to be changed by fel magic. Just because you can do something, does that mean you should? In Hawaii, did Kamehameha have the right to conquer the islands because he had a prophecy, the strength, and an army to back him up?

* Power and responsibility. Azeroth is a peaceful and abundant land, where people generally get along with other races. Do they have a moral obligation to help refugees from a dying land? If someone needs help, are you obligated to help them?

* Power corrupts. Fel magic physically changes orcs and humans, and seems to change their personalities too, making them do things they would not otherwise have done. The Guardian Medivh admits that he doesn’t remember everything he has done under the influence of the fel. Is the orc leader Gul’dan a victim of fel magic himself? And a related question: can fel magic be used for good? Is someone who was healed by fel magic, like Durotan’s newborn son, irredeemable?

“Star Trek Beyond” (2016) is a striking science fiction adventure in which the crew of the USS Enterprise end up stranded on an isolated planet, facing a ruthless enemy determined to destroy the Federation.

* Unity vs. the individual warrior. One of the overarching themes is the idea that unity and cooperation makes us stronger. Unity is embodied by the Federation, which is made up of many races. The Enterprise must work together to save their people and defeat their enemy, while refusing to leave their team members behind. “It wasn’t just me. It never is,” Kirk explains, refusing to take all the credit for saving Yorktown. In stark contrast is Krall’s philosophy that champions the individual warrior. But Krall is not a lone gunslinger, a warrior who protects his people while remaining an outsider; he is a warrior who proclaims his strength by defeating others. He threatens one Enterprise crew member in order to gain the artifact he seeks, declaring “Unity is not your strength. It is a weakness.”

* It is easy to lose our way. Kirk has doubts about continuing to captain the Enterprise, and Spock questions his commitment to the Enterprise’s exploratory mission. It takes a shared danger to reaffirm their commitment to the Enterprise, which has become their family. Even Krall has lost his way as a warrior who fought to protect his people, becoming a warrior who wants to annihilate others.

Side note: I had an odd “The Princess Bride” flashback when Jaylah confronts Manas, the warrior who killed her father.

What were your favorite movies of the summer? What did you like best about them? What could they teach you?

Back to fifth grade

Posted August 23, 2016 by Rachelle Chang
Categories: Education

Tags: , ,

Back to School

For parents and students, it’s a few weeks into the new school year. My son started fifth grade at a public elementary school in Honolulu, and the start of this year has been harder than in previous years.

The start of fifth grade was harder for me too. My school had combined fifth and sixth grade classes, so we had the same teacher, Ms. Foster, for two years. We had the chance to have a mentor in fifth grade and be a mentor in sixth grade. Here’s what I remember most: we still had snack time (milk and cookies or brownies). We had a classroom economy, with a banker and checking accounts. We had daily one-page writing assignments (I even wrote a few stories with cliffhanger endings that were resolved on Fridays).

Today, I think we expect so much more from students (and we took away snack time). The back-to-school experience is all about more.

More school supplies. Shopping for school supplies is like a treasure hunt. This year, the list was 33 items long – among them, 24 sharpened #2 pencils, hand soap, tissues, wet wipes, various markers, and a white board. I don’t mind paying for school supplies (after all, everyone in Hawaii helps to pay for public education), but I wish there was an easier way to do it.

One solution is to bundle all the school supplies and charge a flat fee. Buying in bulk could save parents time and money. It could be convenient for donors, who could contribute a backpack or buy a school supply kit. It could also be easier for donor organizations, which would not have to store and distribute an assortment of school supplies.

More school forms. School paperwork has multiplied over the years. We fill out emergency cards, MealTracker (school lunch) deposits, a responsible technology agreement, a media release, a free/reduced lunch form, a PG movie viewing release form, a volunteer form, and field trip consent forms – not to mention the forms to sign students up for optional extracurricular activities.

I understand why the Department of Education (DOE) needs all of these forms, permissions, and disclosures. Really. But it’s overwhelming for parents to fill out these forms; and it’s time-consuming for administrators to create, copy, distribute, collect, and file these forms. Every year.

One solution is to create online student accounts, so that parents can fill out forms online. Parents could input their information once, and then update them every year. Data could be transferred to the school database, with fewer data entry errors. At the beginning of the school year, schools could even open up their computer rooms in the evening or on a weekend, so that parents without computers could fill out the forms, assisted by administrators.

More homework. I know that teachers give different amounts of homework, but my son’s workload has increased this year. His daily homework consists of reading for at least 30 minutes, two pages of math, and a page in the “Reading Wonders” book. Side note: when I was in school, I called reading and writing simply “English”; today, my son calls it “L.A.” (language arts). Every week, he has a vocabulary packet, writes a reading log, and must complete two iXL online math practice tests.

I believe in homework. I believe that repeated practice helps students learn. It also shows parents what children are learning in school. My son is not as happy – the amount of homework sometimes makes him feel stressed and anxious. At least I can help him learn to cope with stress and anxiety.

What do you remember most from fifth grade? If you have school-age children, how would you describe your back-to-school experience?

Vaccines, voting and vigilance

Posted August 16, 2016 by Rachelle Chang
Categories: Government, Health

Tags: , , ,

Voter Enthusiasm

On the day of the Hawaii primary election, there were longer lines to get the Hepatitis A vaccine than there was at our neighborhood polling place.

The Honolulu clinic was professional and organized. Hepatitis A vaccines were free. I stood in line, answered three questions, signed my name, and went to one of the stations to receive a shot in the arm and a band-aid.

Our polling place was efficient and orderly. I stood in line, signed my name, received a ballot, went to one of the curtained desks to fill out the ballot, and put the ballot in the ballot machine. Knowing that we may soon switch to mail-in or electronic voting, I wanted to vote at my polling place to feel part of my community.

I decided to get the vaccination because I want to take care of myself and the people around me. The vaccine is supposed to last a lifetime, and I didn’t want to worry every time I bought groceries or ate at a restaurant..

I voted because it is both a duty and a privilege to vote, and to be reasonably informed about candidates and issues. The decisions our elected representatives make could affect us for many years after they are out of office.

As of August 10, 2016, there are 168 confirmed cases of Hepatitis A, according to the Hawaii Department of Health. I don’t know how many people have received the vaccination, but people are vigilant about their health: news reports say that pharmacies are seeing an influx of people seeking vaccinations, and insurance companies are responding to concerns by offering prescriptions or free or low-cost vaccinations.

In the 2016 Hawaii primary election, 252,703 voters (34.8% of registered voters) determined the outcome of US Congress, State Legislature, city mayor, and OHA races, according to the Hawaii Office of Elections. Our health may not be directly affected by elections, but too few Hawaii residents are vigilant about our peace of mind, our quality of living, and our wallets.

Did you vote in the Hawaii primary election? Did you make choices for good candidates or against poor candidates?