Archive for the ‘Government’ category

Selecting legislators like jurors

October 15, 2019

This summer, I received a summons for jury duty. I was instructed to call the court for further instructions the night before my summons date. Though I took the whole day off, the case was settled and I didn’t actually have to serve.

But this whole process made me wonder… what if we selected legislators like jury duty?

It takes a lot of courage, money, and energy, a thick skin, and a willingness to be in the limelight for candidates to run for office.

As voters, we often don’t know our legislators very well. We vote based on a combination of personal charisma, vision, debates, campaign donations, sign-waving, sound-bites, and handshakes.

The approach to jury duty is much different. Every US citizen at least 18 years of age, in good physical and mental condition, who has not been convicted of a felony, is eligible to serve.

Juries are not filled by people who campaign for the job. They are filled by ordinary people who often don’t want to be there, but show up anyway and do their best to uphold the law.

So I’ve been wondering… what if we created a few at-large legislative positions, from a “legislative pool” of full-time residents who are registered voters, with no criminal records? How would these at-large legislators affect the law-making and budgeting process – and the way we view our elected officials?

A legislative pool might work something like this:

  1. Eligible candidates could be summoned to legislative duty by random drawing.
  2. State attorneys could interview potential legislators for potential conflicts of interest; whether they are exempt from serving (such as members of the armed forces, emergency personnel, and government personnel); and whether it would be an undue hardship to serve (such as economic hardship and physical or mental disabilities).
  3. Twelve statewide “at-large” legislators could serve for one legislative session, roughly January through May.

Legislators drawn from our “peers” might better represent the diversity of Hawaii’s culture and values; be less influenced by campaign donations, since they would not have to fundraise to run for office (this is the same argument for publically-funded elections); offer new perspective and solutions to the problems we face; and give people legislative experience, potentially increasing the number of interested candidates.

I don’t know how much it would cost to create a pool of citizen-legislators, or how it would affect committee assignments and discussions, or whether it’s a good idea to have more legislators tinkering with legal and tax codes. Doing something different isn’t always better, but it could be interesting.

How well do you know your state legislators? How confident are you that you are voting for the right candidates? If you were called to be a legislator, would you serve?

A view of Honolulu views

May 28, 2019

“Each time Honolulu city lights stir up memories in me
Each night Honolulu city lights bring me back again”
Honolulu City Lights, Keola Beamer and Kapono Beamer, 1979

The City and County of Honolulu is conducting a Honolulu Public Views Study. The goal is to prioritize views of natural and manmade features that we need to protect. It’s a chance for us to share our opinions about what we want to see when we look out a of a high-rise building, glance out the window of a rail car, drive along scenic roads, or hike along mountain trails.

I was curious about the study itself. Would we get to comment about building height restrictions? Would they ask what we wish we could see when we step outside our front door? Would they ask about the trade-off between affordable housing and building higher condominiums?

Not quite. The survey literally asks us to identify mountain ranges, manmade buildings, and ocean views that we think are important and should be protected. It seems to be written to future residents of high-rise buildings, with the goal of approving building permits for more high-rise buildings in the future.

Here is my view about Honolulu views:

Protect views of nature. In the study, manmade features (buildings and landmarks) are weighted equally with natural features. Buildings age and neighborhoods change over time. We are already protecting valuable sites – there are 1,384 designated historic places in Hawaii, according to the State Historic Preservation Division (as of 4/25/19). The view of the sites from somewhere else isn’t protected.

Instead, we need to focus on protecting views of nature. Our mountain ranges, valleys, marinas, ocean views, and islands are what make us Hawaii. Like some homeowners’ associations, we can focus on protected “view channels” to ensure that new buildings minimize their impact on existing buildings – including impacts on trade winds, utilities, traffic, and parking.

Enforce existing building height restrictions – with graduated limits. The study asks us to choose between Mauka or Makai, sunrise or sunset, one mountain range over another. It suggests that if the public doesn’t prioritize a view, Honolulu would be open to approving even more building height limit variances.

I think we need enforce the building height restricts we have and create more graduated building height limits. For example, Waikiki increasing building heights, from 220 feet on the Diamond Head side to 350 feet on the Ala Moana side, according to a Honolulu Magazine article.

Protect Honolulu’s natural skyline. The study asks whether we want a recognizable urban Honolulu skyline. I think we already have several iconic skylines: the view of Diamond Head, the view of Waikiki Beach, even the view of Hanauma Bay. Almost instantly recognizable, and set apart from other urban skylines. Older than the Golden Gate Bridge, more tranquil than the Eiffel Tower, more verdant than the Great Pyramid.

There’s still time to take the online survey, which closes on May 31, 2019 at https://app.maptionnaire.com/en/5032/.

Have you taken the Honolulu Public Views Survey? Do you believe Honolulu should have a recognizable skyline? What views stir up memories in you?

2019 Hawaii Legislative Watch: Debt

March 26, 2019

Last week, I highlighted five Reports to the Legislature about what government accomplished last year. Those reports were from the Department of Taxation (DOTAX), Public Housing Authority (HPHA), Executive Office on Aging (EOA), Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA), and Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART).

 

The report that caused me the most confusion and unease is the Statement of Total Outstanding Indebtedness of the State of Hawaii and the Statement of the Debt Limit of the State of Hawaii as of July 1, 2018, prepared by the Depart of Budget and Finance.

 

The Department of Budget and Finance oversees the general management of 1) State debt, 2) revenue bonds and special facility revenue bonds, and 3) the issuance and management of special purpose revenue bonds, or tax-exempt debt incurred by private parties pursuing qualified projects in the interest of the general public.

 

State debt includes reimbursable and non-reimbursable general obligation bonds, special assessment bonds, refunding bonds, mortgage credit certificates, short-term loans, certificates of participation, and municipal lease financings.

 

Hawaii had a total principal amount of outstanding indebtedness of $11.49 billion. Of this amount, $4.81 billion can be excluded under Article VII, section 13, State Constitution, making the excess of outstanding indebtedness over exclusions $6.67 billion as of July 1, 2018. Note: This does not include County debt.

 

The State of Hawaii has a debt limit of 18.5% of the average net general fund revenues of the three preceding years ending June 30 – currently, $1.36 billion.

 

Hawaii’s population of 1.42 million people is closest in size to Maine with 1.34 million people and New Hampshire with 1.36 million people, according to the US Census Bureau. How does Hawaii’s outstanding debt compare?

 

In 2016, the most recent fiscal year available from the US Census Bureau, Hawaii had a combined state and local outstanding debt of $15.38 billion, compared with $7.80 billion in Maine and $10.44 billion in New Hampshire. What is there such a big gap in public debt?

 

Debt can be good. Government debt can fund public projects, capital improvements, and respond to emergencies.

 

How much debt is too much? Are some types of debt better (or less costly) than others?

 

The 2019 Hawaii Legislature adjourns on May 2. Please think about these issues and how they may affect you, everyone around you, and future generations. Whether you have concerns or feel strongly about an issue, speak up, talk about it, and be part of the discussion!

2019 Hawaii Legislative Watch: Reports

March 19, 2019

For the past few years, I’ve read through the bill summaries to find out about the bills being proposed that affect our money, education, and rights. I relied on these summaries to accurately reflect the legislators’ intentions, and I highlighted the bills that I thought needed the most consideration and debate.

This year, I decided to do something different. Instead of skimming through 1,597 House bills and 1,545 Senate bills introduced this year, I thought I’d focus on what government accomplished last year.

During the 2019 Hawaii Legislative session, there are 430 Reports to the Legislature. Here are five of the annual reports that I think deserve careful attention:

Taxes: Department of Taxation (DOTAX) Annual Report

Total State tax collections in FY 2018 were $7.90 billion, a 7.6% increase from FY 2017, which were $7.34 billion. Revenue from the General Excise Tax (GET), accounting for 43% of the State’s total tax collections, increased 4.9% to $3.40 billion in FY 2018 from $3.24 billion in FY 2017. Revenue from Hawaii’s Individual Income Tax (IIT), Hawaii’s second largest tax, accounting for 31% of the State’s total tax collections, increased 11.0% to $2.43 billion in FY 2018 from $2.19 billion in FY 2017. Revenue from the Transient Accommodations Tax (TAT), which increased from 9.25% to 102.5% starting January 1, 2018, increased 9.2% to $554.9 million in FY 2018 from $504.8 million in FY 2017.

Housing: Hawaii Public Housing Authority (HPHA) Annual Report

The Hawaii Public Housing Authority (HPHA) portfolio consists of 6,270 units across 85 properties. Combined, Federal and State housing sheltered 5,193 individuals and families, with average rents of $310 to $387 for families and $251 to $303 for elderly. “Low Income” families earn 80% of area median income (AMI) or less, which is $93,280 for a family of four in the Honolulu metropolitan area. “Extremely low income” families earn 30% AMI or less, which is $34,980 for a family of four in the Honolulu metropolitan area.

Kupuna: Executive Office on Aging (EOA) Annual Report

With funding of $19,269,823, State and Federal services assisted an estimated 7,129 older adults. The Office served 175 elderly with 7,366 one-way trips of assisted transportation, 969 elderly with 46,847 hours of personal care, 285 elderly with 81,499 hours of adult day care, 3,288 elderly with 386,089 home delivered meals, and 268 caregivers with 32,062 hours of respite care for elderly family members.

Native Hawaiians: Office of Hawaiian Affairs (OHA) Annual Report

In FY 2018, OHA generated $60.5 million in total revenue and expended $39.7 million for the Board of Trustees, Support Services, and Beneficiary Advocacy, with total assets of $427.8 million. OHA awarded $8.75 million in grants and $318,040 in sponsorships.

One of the DOT’s goals is to “Increase Voluntary Compliance” by a. Increasing oversight utilizing various branches/areas of our Compliance Division and b. Developing procedures to ensure a more efficient and timely audit process.” They really should add a third strategy, “c. Simplifying the tax code and tax forms.”

Honolulu Rail Transit: Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation (HART) Annual Report

HART currently estimates to the cost of Honolulu rail transit at $8.165 billion (excluding finance costs), with December 2025 as the target date for the start of full revenue operations. An interim opening from Kualaka‘i at East Kapolei Station to Hālawa at Aloha Stadium Station is planned for December 2020. As of October 2018, $3.349 billion has been spent on the project, which is approximately 46.8% complete.

The 2019 Hawaii Legislature adjourns on May 2. Please think about these issues and how they may affect you, everyone around you, and future generations. Whether you have concerns or feel strongly about an issue, speak up, talk about it, and be part of the discussion.

Should governments operate more like nonprofits?

March 5, 2019

Last year, my then 11-year old son and I were watching a TV news story about a fundraiser for a girl with cancer at a Hawaii elementary school. He burst out, “Why don’t they do a fundraiser for rail?”

 

He suggested that government could find kids who would ride rail and tell their stories, like a girl who can’t get to school without rail.

 

“Sometimes kids have better ideas than government,” he said seriously.

 

I didn’t have the HART to tell him that when governments engage in fundraising, it’s called “taxation.”

 

And then I thought: why can’t governments hold fundraisers?

 

Governments are often admonished to act more like businesses, by providing better products (government services), good customer service, and lower prices (to avoid raising taxes).

 

Maybe governments should try to operate more like nonprofit organizations.

 

Nonprofits are usually recognized for their passion for a cause, their commitment to service, and their shoe-string budgets. They don’t have any taxing power, so they rely on donations, volunteers, and in-kind gifts.

 

Instead of raising taxes for everyone, maybe state and city governments could hold annual fundraising campaigns. The people and organizations could donate money to support specific departments or initiatives.

 

Government-nonprofit operations are proven to work; consider the annual school carnivals and Friends of the Library of Hawaii. Schools and libraries are government organizations that really do operate like nonprofits, and are supported by nonprofit fundraising.

 

And possibly the biggest effect on taxpayers: receiving thank you letters instead of tax bills.

 

At the time, I told my son to write a letter to the newspaper outlining his idea and offered to send it in for him. He wasn’t interested, and went back to his homework. But I wanted to share his idea with you.

 

What would motivate you to donate money to government?