Archive for the ‘Government’ category

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!

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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?

The architecture of democracy and aloha

February 26, 2019

The more I visit the Hawaii State Capitol Building, the more I admire it.

When my son was in elementary school, they did a walking tour of the Capitol District. They walked into the courtyard among the tall columns and were met by a legislator, who took them to the Senate Chambers. They went into the Governor’s “public” office and took photos beneath the Hawaii seal. Everyone expected the students to be courteous and well-behaved, and they were.

I really appreciate having a State Capitol where democracy and aloha are built into the very architecture of the building.

The two large, open entryways welcome everyone. We are free to talk to a legislator or testify at a hearing. Entering the building is like stepping onto your cousin’s porch before a family gathering. When you are trusted family, you don’t need to knock on the door.

The tall, concrete columns show us that democracy and a code of laws are strong and stable in Hawaii. Walking through the courtyard creates a sense that we can trust that the code of laws will be upheld and our rights will be protected.

The ceiling is the sky, open to the sun, the winds, and the rain. It reminds us that we are interconnected with nature – and each other. Standing in the courtyard or at the railings on the upper floors, we can wave to each other like neighbors.

There are no gates, no metal detectors, no guard stations, and no excessive security.

So how can we keep legislators, staff, and visitors safe without losing this welcoming feeling of democracy and aloha?

Start with information desks. We could open staffed information desks at the State Capitol Building and the entrance from the underground parking lot. “Aloha Aides” could guide visitors and act as a first line of security. Suspicious activity could be reported to a uniformed security guard or the police.

Prioritize openness and aloha. The Capitol Building has welcomed us for fifty years, since it opened in 1969. Let’s not give up our freedom and feeling of welcome for an atmosphere of distrust and suspicion.

When we step onto the Hawaii State Capitol grounds, we are expected to be courteous and well-behaved, and we are.

How often do you visit the Hawaii State Capitol? How do you feel when you step onto the Capitol grounds?

 

Photo courtesy of Hawaii State Legislature website at https://www.capitol.hawaii.gov.

Avoiding another federal government shutdown

January 29, 2019

To our federal employees and families, thank you for your public service. Thank you for going to work every day, when you weren’t getting paid. Thank you for going to work every day, when you were anxious about how you would pay your bills. Thank you for keeping us safe.

We were all relieved to hear that the federal government shutdown came to an end. We are all worried that there may be more shutdowns to come.

Though I’m not a lawyer or a politician, I’ve been thinking about how we can avoid shutdowns in the future. I’ve come up with a few thoughts and ideas I’d like to share.

* Require an annual balanced federal budget. Without a budget to manage the government’s income (aka taxes), the government won’t be able to uphold our rights, ensure our freedoms, and keep us safe. There should be consequences for legislators if they cannot or will not do their jobs.

On a related note, we could consider that the federal government…

* Build a zero-based annual federal budget every 10 years. This means starting a federal budget from $0 and justifying expenses for each department. Alternately, we could require zero-based annual budgets by department, on a rotating basis, so that the entire budget is not up for review at one time.

If legislators can’t agree and cause a federal government shutdown…

* Suspend US Congress salaries and benefits. If federal employees do not get paid because a federal budget is not approved, then federal lawmakers should not get paid either. Elected government officials seem to be using federal employees to make statements about their political policies. But while Congress and the White House stick to their principles, employees, families, and communities bear the burden of those principles. As we all know, the Thirteenth Amendment of the US Constitution abolished slavery and involuntary servitude (except as punishment for a crime).

At the state level, this means that we may need to…

* Reduce our reliance on the federal government. One way we can do this is to minimize the role of federal government and return more authority to state governments. It doesn’t make sense for the federal government to duplicate many of the services that the state government provides. Many federal agencies, such as the Department of Education and the Department of Health, could collect, report, and audit data from the states, and make policy recommendations – not set national policies. State governments would have more responsibility for government programs and would need to hire more employees.

But returning more authority to state governments would also require that we…

* Completely revise the federal tax system. State governments should not rely on the federal government for funding. It doesn’t make sense for large amounts of taxes to go to the federal government and then be redistributed to the states. 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 to pay for local programs and services.

How were you impacted by the federal shutdown? What do you think we can do to avoid future shutdowns?

A confession about the national news

January 22, 2019

I have a confession to make. Over the past few months, I’ve been avoiding the national news. I keep up with the local news, but I only read the headlines of the national news.

“Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government,” Thomas Jefferson wrote. A couple of years ago, I agreed completely.

But there were a few things Jefferson didn’t foresee, like 24/7 news; the ease with which truth and lies can spread; the knowledge that even when news is disproven, people still believe it is true; and the sometimes callousness of anonymous political discourse.

I needed to take a break from national politics and political debate for my own mental health. The frustration, anger, helplessness, and even scorn I felt were not healthy, and I couldn’t turn it into something productive.

So I will indulge in sticking to the headlines a little longer. When I’m ready to read beyond the headlines again, I’ll remind myself of two things:

* I choose to be kind and positive. I can’t control the news, the reporters, the bloggers, or the commentators, but I can control myself.

* I choose to believe that most people do what they think is right, even when I disagree with them (maybe especially when I disagree with them). And I hope they will think the same of me in return.

How closely do you follow national politics? How can we improve the way we discuss government policies and laws?

Suburbs, sustainability, and selfishness

November 27, 2018

Is an urban lifestyle better, or more environmentally sustainable, than the suburban lifestyle? Are people who live in the suburbs selfish?

We have a stereotype of the suburban lifestyle: more single-family homes, larger living spaces, more green spaces, and larger shopping malls surrounded by parking lots. And in exchange for living with more, further away from the urban center, there is a heavy reliance on automobiles, more traffic, and fewer transportation options.

It’s a sharp contract with the urban lifestyle: more people, more high-rises, smaller living spaces, shared green spaces, smaller retail stories, and more transportation options.

In “Enduring Features of the North American Suburb: Built Form, Automobile Orientation, Suburban Culture and Political Motivation” (2018), Pierre Filion of the School of Planning at the University of Waterloo makes two broad claims about sustainability and political expression that made me think about urban planning in a different way.

The article is based on two Toronto, Ontario, Canada metropolitan region case studies involving attempts at creating more urban growth centers (“recentralization”) and a 2010 mayoral election campaign. It’s especially interesting in light of Hawaii’s efforts at creating a “second city” and the challenges we face with population growth and limited resources.

Sustainable communities? Filion writes that modern planning “promotes suburban transformations intended to enhance environmental sustainability, largely by reducing suburban land consumption and reliance on the automobile.” However, suburban lifestyle and culture “impede planning attempts to transform suburbs in ways that make them more environmentally sustainable.” In other words, he assumes that the urban lifestyle and “collective forms of consumption” are more environmentally sustainable than the suburban lifestyle. I don’t know if this is true, and Filion does not explain how he arrives at this conclusion.

In Hawaii, the line between urban and suburban is blurred, and the distance between communities is relatively small. In a sense, “suburban” can encompass most communities outside of urban Honolulu or rural communities (including agricultural, preservation, conservation, and resort lands). I can agree that suburban communities consume more electricity for lighting along roadways, more electricity to power larger homes, and more gas for transportation than comparable-sized urban communities. How much of this environmental impact is balanced by more parks and land devoted to recreation and greenery, less concentrated air pollution, and fewer overhead highways?

As a society, how do urban and suburban lifestyles impact the environment, as well as our physical and mental health?

Selfish communities? Filion concludes that the suburban culture influences the way that residents view environmental sustainability and the way that residents vote in elections. He mentions “mobilizations to preserve features of suburbs perceived to be under threat,” such as “NIMBY movements” and densification initiatives. In effect, he suggests that suburban communities are selfish for wanting to consume more land and resources, and then take political action by voting to protect the lifestyle. Note: he doesn’t actually use the word “selfish,” but it’s implied.

In Hawaii and in every community, political activism is not limited to suburban communities. Filion could as easily state that the urban lifestyle “can transmute into political expression.” More interesting to me is the idea of “the conservatism of the suburbs,” the suggestion that suburban communities tend to become more conservative in voting patterns. I wish that Filion would clarify what he means by “conservatism” – whether it is a commitment to traditional values and lifestyle, an opposition to change, land conservation, or a political ideology (and how this differs in Canada and the United States).

Does living in suburban communities make us more selfish by encouraging consumption of land and resources? Does urban living make us less selfish?

This is a big topic for a short post, and I don’t have any answers – only more questions. But it made me think about where we live and how we plan our communities, and I hope it gives you something to think about too.

Do you live in an urban, suburban, or rural community? What factors influenced your decision to live there? How are your voting habits influenced by where you live?