Rethinking government services

Cutbacks cripple many government functions,” an April 17, 2011 Honolulu Star-Advertiser headline screamed. The article highlighted some of the cuts that have been made in government services.

Instead of complaining about these cut-backs, let’s consider whether we can change the way we get things done – and change our expectations for the services that government provides.

I’ll get us started with three departments, and a few ideas.

* Hawaii Department of Education: Some schools have been closed; the number of school days has been reduced; funding has been cut for part-time teachers, tutors, and textbooks; bus fares and school meals have been increased.

Suggestion #1: Charge tuition for public schools to help pay for teachers’ salaries and supplies – no waivers or credits. Public education is not free – our Constitution only guarantees us the right to equal access to public education. If each student pays $100 a year (that’s $10 a month), we could recover over $17 million for public schools (there were 178,649 public and charter school students enrolled during the 2009-2010 school year). It’s not unreasonable – in 1933, students paid $10 ($164.80 in 2010 dollars) to pay teachers’ salaries (from “Hawaii’s Forgotten History” by Rich Budnick).

Suggestion #2: Create programs for parent-run after-school programs and tutoring. It’s not government’s job to provide childcare, even at $80 a month, so let’s get parents back in the game. If 20 children need a safe, fun place after school, then each parent would have to volunteer just one or two afternoons a month to supervise the children – in a school classroom, park recreation area, or library. Youth sport teams are run by parent coaches and volunteers – why not after-school care and tutoring?

* Hawaii Department of Taxation: Positions have been cut, resulting in delays in processing tax returns and responding to taxpayer issues.

Suggestion #1: Online tax payments should be free. We should encourage people to file and pay their tax returns online, reducing the need for staffed offices and ensuring that tax payments are processed quickly. Instead, we penalize online payers with a $1.00 fee for eChecks and a $1.00 fee plus 2.25% for credit card payments. The Business Registration Division offers a discount for online registration; why not the Department of Taxation?

Suggestion #2: Create fewer and simplified tax forms. Do you realize that there are over 50 forms and schedules for individuals, over 25 for partnerships, over 40 for corporations, and over 35 for S-corporations? That’s just for income taxes. Why can’t we have three tax returns – for individuals, for-profit businesses, and non-profit businesses? Why do we need so many schedules, worksheets, and forms? Maybe if we had fewer forms and schedules, it would save everyone time, paperwork, and frustration. We would be able to process tax returns on time and fewer people would need taxpayer assistance.

* Hawaii Department of Agriculture: There are fewer inspectors; no inspections on some produce; and delays in inspections.

Suggestion #1: Let each local grower or distributor certify its own products, including coffee. Government inspections add costs, create delays to market, and give consumers a false sense of security and product endorsement. Instead, each company could certify that they have inspected their products, and include the date, time, and initials of the examiner. Remember Inspector 12 from the 1980s Fruit of the Loom commercials? There is already a Seals of Quality program – why can’t it be expanded for imported products too? With enough training, maybe grocery stores could inspect produce at the docks, instead of when good are delivered. I know that food safety and pest control are important and complicated issues, but let’s think about alternative solutions to government inspections.

Suggestion #2: Reassign the 18 coqui frog agents to produce inspection. Food safety is more important than public nuisance control.

Government has taken on many roles in our lives. What do we really need government to do, and what can government do really well? What government services are really our responsibility as individuals, employees, and business owners?

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