Archive for January 2015

7 issues to analyze in the 2015 Hawaii legislature

January 27, 2015

Legislature Session 2015

The 2015 Hawaii Legislature opened last week on January 21. We’re in for 16 weeks of discussion, debate, testimony, and compromise until the legislature adjourns on May 7.

* If there’s an issue that you feel strongly about, please contact your state senator and representative by phone, mail, or email.

* To track specific measures, receive email notifications of public hearings, and submit testimony, you can register for a free account with the Hawaii Legislature.

* To find out what your legislators are working on, check the list of leadership and committee assignments.

January 29, just a few days from now, is the last day to introduce bills in the legislature. Here are just seven issues that I hope to see debated with taxpayers in mind during the 2015 legislative session:

1. Taxes: Keep the Internet tax-free. I strongly oppose the Streamlined Sales Tax Project. I think that it is unconstitutional for two reasons: it taxes interstate commerce and it is taxation without representation (businesses don’t have a voice in Hawaii). It also places an unfair burden on businesses that would be forced to collect sales taxes, keep more records, and fill out more paperwork and tax returns. It is one more hurdle for an entrepreneur who is just getting started. It is especially alarming for Hawaii, because the Internet allows us to buy goods that are not available at a reasonable price. Beware: in the 2014 legislature, HB1651, HB2135, and HB2507 attempted to require us to pay taxes on Internet purchases!

2. Taxes: Create a flat tax. Taxes should be simple and easy to understand. We shouldn’t have to hire a “professional” to do our taxes, and we shouldn’t live in fear of an IRS audit. In the 2014 legislature, HB1835 proposed that the Department of Taxation develop a plan to implement a flat income tax.

3. Government: Enact term limits for state legislators. I believe that term limits could encourage more people to get involved in politics. It would support more citizen legislators, not more career politicians. It could reduce the “wait your turn” to run for office culture. It could balance out the built-in advantage that incumbents have in name recognition and fundraising. It could make committee assignments more democratic, without the influence of seniority. In the 2014 legislature, HB2417 attempted to limit state representatives to five consecutive full terms; and SB2144 attempted to limit state senators to three consecutive 4-year terms and state representatives to six consecutive 2-year terms.

4. Government: Create a unicameral, nonpartisan legislature. I would like to see a unicameral, nonpartisan legislature that would put the focus on issues, not party affiliation. I think that a small state like Hawaii would be better served with legislators who represent smaller areas, instead of senators and representatives for larger districts. In the 2014 legislature, SB2154 would have created a unicameral legislature, which should consist of 51 members serving 4-year terms (same number of legislators, but no duplication of neighborhood representation); but there were no proposals for a nonpartisan legislature.

5. Education: Preschool cannot be free. I believe that we need to improve the K-12 public school system we have now, before asking the Department of Education to take responsibility for another grade level. We need to be realistic: all children are not ready for preschool; and we cannot, and maybe should not, offer free preschool for all children. In the 2014 legislature, HB1700 passed, which allocated $3 million for pre-kindergarten programs in fiscal year 2015.

6. Healthcare: Why do we need the Hawaii Health Connector? Hawaii has one of the lowest rates of uninsured residents – just 7.7% of the population in 2010, according to the Healthcare Association of Hawaii. Yet instead of targeting just the 7.7% of residents who are not covered, the Affordable Care Act has forced everyone to change their health insurance plans – and possibly pay more for the privilege, by adding a “sustainability fee” (tax) to keep the Hawaii Health Connector going. In the 2014 legislature, HB2529 HD3 SD1 and SB3050 SD1 proposed a 0.345% tax on health insurance premiums; HB2588 and SB2471 proposed a 0.67% tax on health insurance premiums purchased through the Hawaii Health Connector.

7. Transportation: Slow down the Honolulu Rail Transit money train. Honolulu has spent over $1.2 billion on rail transit; and has collected over $1.3 billion in GET surcharge revenue from Honolulu taxpayers, according to the “Honolulu Rail Transit Project Monthly Progress Report, November 2014.” Yet we don’t know how much it will cost to build, we haven’t collected as much tax revenue as expected, and we don’t know how we will maintain it. In the 2014 legislature, there was some call for tax relief: SB275 would discontinue the county surcharge for rail transit. However, HB1606 and SB2115 would allow counties to increase the surcharge from 0.5% to 1.0%.

What issues do you think we need to address in 2015 Hawaii legislature? What matters to you?

Read more books in 2015

January 20, 2015

On January 1, my family and I sat down and filled out a “Year in Review” page. Under “Favorite Book,” I couldn’t choose just one; I finally picked “Murder of Crows.” My 8-year old son wrote, “Bunny Double, We’re In Trouble!” And my husband humorously answered, “Facebook.”

Coincidentally, on January 2, Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of Facebook, posted his personal challenge: “My challenge for 2015 is to read a new book every other week — with an emphasis on learning about different cultures, beliefs, histories and technologies.” He also created a community page titled “A Year of Books” to post what he’s reading and discuss the books he’s read. I think this a wonderful personal challenge for all of us.

National Readathon 2015

For readers who like to combine books and doing good, we can start on Saturday, January 24, 2015 with the first National Readathon Day. Penguin Random House, GoodReads, Mashable, and the National Book Foundation have partnered with FirstGiving.com to encourage reading and raise money to improve literacy and reading proficiency for millions of Americans. You can help by reading a book – any book at all, joining a fundraising team, or even hosting a “reading party” in your local community.

GoodReads 2015 Reading Challenge

Want to read even more this year? Take the GoodReads 2015 Reading Challenge. Just decide on the number of books you want to read in 2015 and start the challenge. You can add books to your “to read” or “currently reading” shelves. When you mark your books as “read,” GoodReads tracks your books. In 2014, over 670,000 participants read over 19 million books.

It’s not too early to start Reading Resolutions for kids. I found two free printable reading resolutions for kids: Scholastic’s “New Year’s Reading Resolutions” (it’s dated 2014, but it’s timeless); Success Academy Charter Schools’ “Reading Resolutions: Make 2015 Your Family’s Best Year of Reading Yet!” Both of them encourage children to read more, try new genres, and share reading recommendations. For more ambitious kids, Scholastic has a checklist of “100 New Year’s Reading Resolutions” like “Read my best friend’s favorite book” and “Read 100 books this year.”

Have you made any new year’s resolutions? Will you join a reading challenge? What books will you read this year?

Going forward and looking back at the Honolulu City Council

January 13, 2015

Honolulu City Council

The 2015 Honolulu City Council officially opened on January 2. The Council meets once a month, year-round, and are open to the public as well as broadcast live on Oceanic Cable Channel 54 or TCI Channel 54. If there’s an issue that you feel strongly about, please consider submitting testimony at council or committee meetings.

Going forward in 2015, here are the top three things that I hope the Honolulu City Council can accomplish:

  1. Allow the Oahu half-percent rail surcharge to sunset, as the law intends. The surcharge was meant to be temporary (like the unfortunate Transient Accommodations Tax) and keeping it in place will only encourage lawmakers to increase the surcharge whenever there is a rail transit shortfall.
  2. Create reasonable limits on real property taxes. Homeowners should not be penalized when neighbors improve their properties or sell their homes, or when speculators invest in the neighborhood. Higher property taxes mean that homeowners, or their beneficiaries, could be forced out of their homes to pay skyrocketing property taxes. For example, the Council might limit annual increases on residential valuations to a maximum of $20,000 per year or 4% of the previous year’s valuation. This means that a $500,000 home could not be valued at more than $520,000 in the next tax year. Alternately, the Council might limit annual residential tax rate increases to not more than $0.25 per $1,000 net taxable property. This means that the current residential rate of $3.50 could not increase to more than $3.75 in the next tax year.
  3. Enact staggered building height limits for new construction from makai (for example, a building height limit of 40 feet within one block of the ocean, and increasing in building height as properties move inland) to mauka (for example, a building height limit of 400 feet near mountain ranges). This would create tiered view planes and allow more people to enjoy ocean views.

 

Looking back at 2014, the Honolulu City Council signed 37 bills into law. Here is a summary of the 2014 City Council ordinances that I think have a strong impact on Honolulu:

Higher government spending:
* The City of Honolulu has appropriated $19 million (Ordinance 14-20, Bill 20-2014) and $1.56 billion (Ordinance 14-21, Bill 21-2014) for the fiscal year July 2014 to June 2015 for rail transit (Ordinance 14-20, Bill 20-2014).
* The city can choose to maintain and repair privately-owned roads serving at least six residential, condominium, or apartment units (Ordinance 14-37, Bill 61-2014).

Higher taxes and fees:
* Higher fees for state special use permits and general plan amendments, and other building and permit applications (Ordinance 14-4, Bill 70-2013).

More government control over private business:
* Non-recyclable paper and non-biodegradable plastic bags are banned, effective July 1, 2015 (Ordinance 14-29, Bill 38-2014).

Rezoning: neighbors beware:
* A parcel in Waimalu, at the corner of Moanalua Road and Kaonohi Street, is rezoned from B-2 Community Business District with a 60-foot height limit to the BMX-3 Community Business Mixed Use District with a 350-foot height limit (Ordinance 14-8, Bill 68-2013).

Lower taxes and fees:
* There is a new, less expensive tier for camping permit fees for campsites holding up to 150 people; originally, the campsite tiers were 5 people, 10 people, 60 people, 100 people, and 250 people (Ordinance 14-12, Bill 24-2014).
* For low-income homeowners, the combined annual income limit for all titleholders has been raised from $50,000 to $60,000 (Ordinance 14-33, Bill 54-2014).

Helping small business:
* “Mobile food unit parking stalls” are available. Food truck vendors can reserve stalls between 10:30 am and 1:30 pm in the Hawaii capital special district and certain zoning districts (Ordinance 14-5, Bill 1-2014).

Protecting society’s rights:
* Climbing, sitting, standing, or laying on publication dispensing racks in Waikiki is prohibited (Ordinance 14-2, Bill 60-2013).
* People cannot sit or lie down on public sidewalks in the Waikiki special district (Ordinance 14-26, Bill 42-2014).
* People cannot urinate or defecate in public within the Waikiki special district (Ordinance 14-27, Bill 43-2014).
* People cannot urinate or defecate in public places (Ordinance 14-28, Bill 46-2014).
* People cannot sit or lie down on public sidewalks in areas zoned for commercial and business activities (Ordinance 14-35, Bill 48-2014).
* Neighbors have some protections against unsafe and unsanitary conditions on private property. If the city must enter private property to abate a public nuisance, all costs of correction may be recorded as a lien against the property (Ordinance 14-36, Bill 52-2014).

What do you hope the Honolulu City Council can accomplish in 2015? Do you think that Councilmembers made an effective use of their time in 2014? How could these bills affect other counties in Hawaii?

Looking back at 5 years of Better Hawaii

January 6, 2015

Better Hawaii - 5 Years

We’ve just wrapped up 5 years of Better Hawaii. Thank you for sharing these years with me. This blog let me share my ideas and opinions, but it’s you who really make a difference. I appreciate all of you – followers, commentators, and silent lurkers (come out and join the discussions!).

I am surprised that I have so much to write! Since 2010, I’ve written over 250 articles, covering topics on taxes and business, family and education. I’ve shared 60 book reviews, encouraging people to read and discuss books about Hawaii, about choosing to be happier, and about living a life with aloha.

Every week, Better Hawaii tries to follow these 5 principles:

  1. Write with passion. I write about the things I care about.
  2. Offer solutions. I share ideas and opinions for making Hawaii better, families stronger, and government more efficient. If I have a complaint, I try to have a possible solution or call to action.
  3. Be concise. I try to keep the articles brief, with short paragraphs, so they are easy to read.
  4. Proofread. I spend more time than I probably should, editing each article.
  5. Respond to readers. I really appreciate it when you read and comment on an article, and I try to reply to each one.

Here are 5 of my favorite posts over the years:

* We’re growing the wrong tax tree (4/6/10). Our current tax system is an overgrown banyan tree, with roots extending down and spreading over the whole economy… It makes more sense to have a tax system like a strong pine tree, simple and orderly. The federal government, which has national responsibilities and a larger tax base, should have lower tax rates. The states, which directly care for citizens but have smaller tax bases, should have higher tax rates and not rely on the federal government for funding.

* Opening different stores by day and night (6/28/11). What if two businesses could share the same location, the same space, but make their businesses totally different from each other? We could start a new trend of “Day and Night” restaurants and stores – one store by day, and a totally different store by night!

* Encouraging strong study habits in Kindergarten (6/5/12).  My son just finished Kindergarten at a Honolulu public school… I thought I’d take a moment to share 5 ways I helped my son build good study habits:

* Kindness matters (11/12/13). November 13 is World Kindness Day. Tomorrow, and every day, let’s brighten someone’s day with small acts of kindness. Whether it’s a smile, a helping hand, or a simple thank you, we can help make the world a better place.

* If Disneyland ran the IRS… (4/15/14). I visited Disneyland and was impressed by their impressive locations and productions, efficient operations, and attention to detail. I started to wonder: how would things change if Disneyland were in charge of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS)?

Thank you for being a part of Better Hawaii and helping to make Hawaii better!

“David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell

January 3, 2015

David and Goliath by Malcolm Gladwell

What happens when ordinary people confront giants? That’s the question behind “David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants” (2013) by author and reporter Malcolm Gladwell. It explores two ideas: how people respond to the opportunity for greatness and situations when strength can be a weakness.

The book’s title refers to the Biblical story of David and Goliath: in the 11th Century BC, the Philistine and Israelite armies faced each other across Elah Valley. The Philistines sent their greatest warrior, Goliath, to challenge the Israelites in single combat. Only David, a shepherd boy, was willing to face Goliath, but he did it on his own terms – without armor and carrying only a sling-shot. The story has come to be a metaphor for an impossible victory, but the real lesson is that while Goliath seemed to be invincible (physical strength), it was David who was more powerful (he broke the “rules” of single combat and used his speed and surprise).

Conventional wisdom tells us that stronger individuals, bigger armies, better sports teams, smaller classrooms, and better schools have the advantage; but the reality is that their strength is often their weakness, and being the underdog gives you the freedom to try different options. “David and Goliath” is a fascinating look at some of the “underdogs” who succeeded despite the odds.

Told in a series of stories, Gladwell takes examples from ordinary people, like first-time rookie basketball coach Vivek Randivé and Brownville, NY police offer Joanne Jaffe and shows how their decisions defied conventional wisdom. He also shows us how following conventional wisdom can lead to poor outcomes, such as student Caroline Sachs, who chose a top college; or the Three Strikes Law, which tried to deter and punish career people who commit multiple crimes.

According to Gladwell, here are some lessons from underdogs:

* In war: don’t fight the enemy on their terms; fight using your own strengths. Their apparent size and strength may blind them to danger and make them slow to react.

* In competitions (sports, games, academics): if you lack talent or skill, work harder. Effort and endurance can trump ability.

* In classrooms: smaller classrooms are not necessarily better; they may have too few viewpoints and inhibit discussion.

* In parenting: too little money is harmful, but too much money can create a sense of entitlement and can discourage ambition and drive.

* Choosing a college: sometimes it is better to be a Big Fish in a Little Pond (where you can excel) than a Little Fish in a Big Pond (where you may become discouraged when you compare yourself to others – “relative deprivation”).

* Living with learning disabilities: force us to focus on our strengths. With dyslexia, people can adapt in other ways (compensation learning) such as improving our memory, and must work harder, may become more comfortable with failure, and may be less afraid.

* Living in war times: remote misses (surviving a disaster) can build courage.

* Living with difficult childhoods and parental loss: if a child’s worst fear has been realized, then having nothing to lose may lead to unexpected freedom and motivation.

* Government and teacher authority: the government and classroom teachers may seem all-powerful, but they need the support or at least tolerance of people and students. If authority is too corrupt or unfair, ordinary people may feel that they have no choice but to rebel or misbehave.

The unanswered question is: when faced with obstacles, what makes some people succeed while others fail? Why do some people thrive in adverse circumstances, and others thrive in advantageous circumstances?