Archive for March 2010

Build a Hawaiian Honolulu Zoo

March 30, 2010

Last year, I took my three year-old son to the Honolulu Zoo. We really enjoyed the play area and the Keiki Zoo. But when I saw the larger animals, I felt sad. The elephants plodded listlessly, and the tigers paced restlessly. They needed room to run and hunt.

I realized that we need to balance our children’s education and our desire to encourage respect for nature with the animals’ lifestyles and the expense of running a zoo. In 2009, the Honolulu Zoo earned $1.9 million (Honolulu Comprehensive Annual Financial Report, FY2009) but cost almost $5.3 million to operate (Honolulu Operating Budget, FY2009).

So, thinking about the animals and Hawaii’s budget problems, I have a radical suggestion: close the African Savanna and, using the money that was budgeted for its maintenance, redesign a hands-on, personal zoo that focuses on Hawaii. There would be four main areas:

Bird Sanctuary. When you first walk into the zoo, it’s all about the birds – each in their own cages. We could create a walk-through bird sanctuary, where the birds can fly all around us (with netting and a plexi-glass ceiling), like the old Paradise Park or the walk-through aquarium that used to be at DFS Galleria Waikiki.

Hawaiian Ahupua’a. We could build an educational area with native animals and plants, and show how the Hawaiians used them for food, shelter, clothing, and implements. We could move some of the reptiles and turtles here. This would be unique – no other zoo teaches about Hawaiian culture.

Keiki Zoo. We already have a fantastic Keiki Zoo where you can touch the animals, with a crawl-through aquarium, kid-sized hamster tunnel, and goat pen. Right outside, there’s a great playground and open lawn. We could move the smaller monkeys here.

American Farm. Let’s re-open the iconic red barn and show people about country life, including information about farm animals and our own Hawaiian paniolo.

If there is additional space, we could relocate the Waikiki Public Library (to save money on rent), create a public art gallery (we already have Art on the Zoo Fence), add a public garden, or build a small outdoor stage (it could also be used for private events).

We shouldn’t try to compete with larger zoos that have more land, more funding, and more visitors. We need a zoo that reflects Hawaii. What do you think?

Improving health care in Hawaii

March 23, 2010

With the Prepaid Health Care Act of 1974, Hawaii was the first state requiring employers to offer health insurance to non-seasonal employees who work at least 20 hours a week. According to Health Trends in Hawaii, 90% of Hawaii residents were covered by private or public health insurance in 2007.

No matter what happens in Congress, Hawaii is in the unique position to lead health care reform.

How can Hawaii improve health care for residents?

Individual health care plans. Make it easier and more affordable for individuals to purchase their own health insurance, similar to individual retirement accounts (IRAs).  It would allow you (not your employer) to choose your health plan. It would ensure that you are covered when you are between jobs. We could even reduce or eliminate COBRA, because it would be unnecessary.

Health savings accounts. Tax-free savings accounts for medical expenses would empower individuals to take charge of their health and encourage fiscal responsibility.

Guarantee coverage renewal. Require that insurance companies continue coverage for as long as you pay the insurance premium, except when there is intentional fraud or abuse.

Publish health care rates. Require that doctors, hospitals, and health care providers publish rates for services and procedures, or give patients a written estimate of costs. This would keep rates competitive, give us more control over our expenses, and decrease health insurance fraud.

Limit lawsuits and “damages.” Doctors are human. Unless there is gross negligence, we need to acknowledge that doctors are not all-knowing and can’t predict the future. By reducing lawsuits, limiting awards, and penalizing frivolous lawsuits, we could encourage more people to become doctors.

Allow health insurance companies to offer sell policies in all states. This is something we need to do at the federal level. But we should show our support for increased healthcare options. Of course, more choice is often more confusing as well, so we would also need strict state regulations to ensure we are protected.

We don’t need a government-run health care system. We need more control over our health care, instead of letting the government, employers, and health care organizations make decisions for us.

I think the health care system we have works for the most part, but we make it better. What do you think?

Join the Honolulu Tax Day Tea Party

March 20, 2010


I’m not a political activist, I don’t volunteer for campaigns, and I am reluctant to speak out in public.

But I’ll make an exception for the Tax Day Tea Party rally on Thursday, April 15, 2010 @ 4 pm at the Hawaii State Capitol Building.

Taxes and government spending aren’t the answer to our economic crisis. We need to spend our money more efficiently, find creative solutions, and respect each other’s rights and opinions.

Please join Hawaii taxpayers and to show your support for fiscal responsibility.

Public education is not free

March 16, 2010

It may shock you, but free public education is not a right.

Article X, Section 1 of the Hawaii State Constitution declares: “The State shall provide for the establishment, support and control of a statewide system of public schools free from sectarian control, a state university, public libraries and such other educational institutions as may be deemed desirable, including physical facilities therefor. There shall be no discrimination in public educational institutions because of race, religion, sex or ancestry…”

We have the right to equal access to public education, without religious indoctrination. But there’s no guarantee that it will be free.

Fast forward to 2009. Hawaii has 17 furlough days and the shortest school year (161 instruction days) in the nation. How can we keep our schools open?

Here’s my solution. We need to start charging public school students a $50 annual fee (that’s $5 a month) or a $100 annual fee (that’s $10 a month) to help pay for teachers’ salaries. No waivers or credits. The assessment would expire in two years, and if necessary could be extended every two years, adjusted for inflation.

During the 2009-2010 school year, 178,649 students were enrolled in public and charter schools (News Release, “Official 2009-10 Public and Charter School Enrollment” 9/8/09).

A $50 annual assessment would recover $8,932,450; or a $100 annual assessment would recover  $17,864,900 for public schools.

You might be thinking: We can’t make students and parents pay for public education!

Yes, we can. Regardless of whether they have children in public school (or children at all), everyone in Hawaii pays for public education. Taxpayers can’t afford more taxes (higher taxes aren’t the answer, anyway).

It’s not unreasonable or unprecedented. In 1925, students paid $1 for textbooks; and in 1933, students paid $10 to help fund teachers’ salaries (“Hawaii’s Forgotten History” by Rich Budnick).

Hawaii wasn’t a state then, but Statehood doesn’t guarantee free public education. In fact, we don’t value public education when it’s free.

What do you think? Do you take better care of something you pay for yourself, or something given to you? Is it unreasonable to ask public school students and their parents to pay a little more?

Overhaul the State retirement system

March 9, 2010

The State of Hawaii has a complex and unfunded Employee Retirement System (ERS).

Right now, there are three different retirement plans (contributory, noncontributory, and hybrid) for four different types of employee (general, police/fire/public safety workers, judges, and elected/legislative officers), with three different retirement levels (regular, early, and vested).

The ERS’ unfunded liability is $5.1 billion, and the funding ratio is 67.5%, according to the 2007 Comprehensive Annual Financial Report (the latest year available).

How can we fix our State pension system? Here’s what I suggest:

1. Require that the retirement system is at least 90% fully funded. Pension systems with a funding ratio below 80% are generally believed to be at risk of failing.

2. Limit employee pensions to the amount that they paid into the system. Retirees would only receive the amount they contributed to the system, plus interest. This would probably need to go into effect in 10-15 years, so that employees have time to plan for retirement.

3. Consolidate and phase-out retirement plans. We need one plan (contributory, with the option to opt-out), for two different types of employees (general and “at risk” police/fire/public safety workers). Pensions would be based on contributions, not service years. Eliminate the special consideration for elected and legislative officers.

4. Consolidate the retirement plan options. There are 5 options a confusing number of option combinations. We need three plan options (monthly pension over 20 years to the employee or surviving spouse; deferred pension that continues to earn interest; and one-time distribution). Eliminate the lifetime pension to a non-spouse beneficiary (otherwise, we could pay lifetime benefits to a 20 year old!).

5. Change the interest rate to prime plus 1%. This would replace the 4.5% interest rate, which is unaffordable when interest rates are low (like now), and unfair when interest rates are high.

6. Allow retirees to choose a one-time tax-free pension distribution. Retirees could roll it into an individual retirement account (IRA) and take responsibility for their money. This would allow the State to save on management and administration costs.

I think the some of these fixes to the State retirement system could also work for Social Security too. After all, the unfunded liability for Social Security is $17.5 trillion (yes, trillion!), according to the 2009 Social Security and Medicare Trustees Reports.

You may be thinking, those State workers earned their pensions!

Here are two examples of the how the State retirement system works. Remember, the average life expectancy in Hawaii is 80 years, according to the US Census.

Example #1: According to the ERS brochure, a general noncontributory employee who retires at age 55 with 30 years of service and a monthly average final compensation of $2,500 is eligible to receive $937.50 per month for life.

That’s 37% of their average salary—more than twice as much as the 15% that the State government contributed to the retirement system, supposedly on their behalf.

Example #2: According to the ERS brochure, a general contributory employee who retires at age 55 with 25 years of service and a monthly average final compensation of $2,500 is eligible to receive 50% of their salary or $1,250 per month for life.

Assuming the employee contributed the required 7.8% of their monthly $2,500 salary, they will have contributed an average of $2,340 per year, earning 4.5% interest compounded annually, or around $108,976 over 25 years. By age 63, they will have received all of the money they paid into the retirement system.

How can we afford our current State retirement system? And do legislators have the courage to fix it before the State goes bankrupt?