Archive for the ‘Taxes’ category

We’re growing the wrong tax tree

July 14, 2020

Every now and then, I challenge us to think about the way our tax system works. Originally published in 2010, “We’re growing the wrong tax tree” is my call to simplify to simplify the tax code – and turn it upside-down.

Let’s ignore, for the moment, the fact that the IRS tax code is over 44,000 pages, is so complicated that even tax experts don’t understand it, and desperately needs simplification. Let’s ignore the benefits of a national sales tax or a flat income tax.

Think about this: like a tree struggling to shade us from harm, our tax system needs more sunshine, more pruning, and a lot less graft.

In fact, we are growing the wrong tax tree entirely.

Our current tax system is an overgrown banyan tree, with roots extending down and spreading over the whole economy. The federal government has higher income tax rates, ranging from 0% to 35%. The states have lower income tax rates, ranging from 0% to 11% – with Hawaii at the top – but are dependent on federal funds and must comply with unfunded mandates.

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.

The only rational explanation for this upside-down, overgrown tax code is that the federal government wants the power to redistribute taxes among the states. They want to create welfare states and ensure that states are dependent on the federal government.

Does this make non-sense? Do you have another explanation – or better yet, solution? Does anyone have ideas about how states can reclaim their power and independence from the federal government?

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?

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?

2018 Hawaii Legislative Watch: Taxes

February 27, 2018

Opening Day for the Hawaii State Legislature was on January 17 – the same day, 125 years ago, that the Kingdom of Hawaii was overthrown.

Slightly less outrageous is the sheer number of bills that are active in the 2018 Hawaii Legislature, which seems to multiply over the years. There are 4,948 current 2017 and 2018 Bills (2,621 House and 2,327 Senate). There are just 60 legislative days to effectively read, discuss, re-write, absorb testimony, and vote on these bills.

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 rely on these summaries to accurately reflect the legislators’ intentions. This year, instead of compiling an overview, I decided to narrow it down to the bills that I think need the most consideration and debate.

 Here are three significant tax bills to watch in the 2018 Legislative Session. If I’ve missed any tax bills that you think we need to keep our eyes on, please let me know!

1. Would you pay higher taxes for public education? There are a number of tax proposals that want to raise money for public education by adding a surcharge on residential investment properties and visitor accommodations (HB180 HD2, HB182 HD2) or by increasing the general excise tax (GET) by 0.5% (SB1132). As a public good, everyone pays for public education through state income taxes and the GET. Even with strong, fundraising parent-teacher groups, the schools are always in need of more money. Is it fair to require homeowners, including non-residents, to pay higher taxes for a service that is unrelated to their home or property? Is it effective to create a dedicated funding source that has little oversight by Hawaii legislators and taxpayers?

2. Tax over-reach on out-of-state businesses. In an effort to raise more tax revenue, the Legislature is looking to tax retailers or vendors that are not Hawaii businesses – but who may have customers in Hawaii. I think this is a blatant tax overreach. Some bills would require retailers or vendors to submit an annual report to Hawaii (HB398 HD2) or even collect GET (HB345, HB2417, SB161, SB620 SD2 HD2), or create a “marketplace provider” designation for businesses with sales over $100,000 from Hawaii residents (SB2871, SB2890). I think that these bills are a tax over-reach because they tax interstate commerce and attempt to impose taxes on businesses without representation in Hawaii. It places an unfair burden on businesses to be in compliance with Hawaii tax laws.

I hope that if other states attempt to tax Hawaii businesses that do business in their state, but do not have a business presence, our Hawaii legislators will protect us from their tax over-reach.

3. General excise tax (GET) vs. sales tax debate: Some people support the GET, because it has a wide tax base and spreads the burden of taxes to everyone. For just this reason, I think that the GET is unfair – it taxes every level of production, from wholesale to retail, and forces businesses to pay taxes on the taxes it collects! Instead, I support a reasonable sales tax, one that only taxes goods and services sold to the end-user, and affects taxpayers according to how much they consume. So I hope that HB2615, which would require the Tax Review Commission to conduct a feasibility study on whether the general excise and use tax laws should be replaced with a sales tax, gets some support from the Legislature this year.

The 2018 Hawaii Legislature adjourns on May 3. 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!

Two-minute rail testimony

August 29, 2017

For many students, August means back to school to continue their education. For the Honolulu Rail Transit Project, August means back to the legislature to ask for more money.

Hawaii legislatures have responded to Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell’s call for more rail funding with revisions to SB No. 4. Public testimony for SB4 was held on yesterday on August 28, 2017 at the State Capitol Auditorium. The 3 pm start time suggests that Ways and Means Committee doesn’t really want to hear from the public; if allowed, I think that public testimony could go on for days.

I didn’t go to the hearing, but I wanted to share my two-minute testimony about the six parts to the funding proposal:

First, $1.32 billion would be raised by increasing the Hawaii Transient Accommodations Tax (TAT) by 1%. In theory, it sounds good to tax someone who doesn’t live or vote in Hawaii. In reality, I think we have reached a point where the TAT is excessive and may deter tourism – unless, of course, we really do want to limit tourism.

Second, $1.04 billion would raised by extending the 0.5%* rail surcharge on the Oahu General Excise Tax (GET) for three years until 2030. While I don’t usually support tax increases or extensions, the GET surcharge is the fairest way to raise funds because it taxes consumption (the goods and services you buy). It lets everyone feel the impact of the tax, keeping the tax front-of-mind.

Third, rail surcharge funds would be deposited into a mass transit special fund. I don’t think we should create another special fund, which could involve more paperwork and more staff to oversee the fund. If lawmakers don’t trust the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART), they shouldn’t fund it at all.  

Fourth, the State Department of Taxation would reduce is administrative fee from 10% to 1% of the gross proceeds. This increases the surcharge revenue allocated to rail transit. This is long over-due. The 10% administrative fee is exorbitant; it appears to be a bribe to ensure the State’s support for rail.

Fifth, the rail surcharge can no longer be used to fund operating, maintenance, administration, or marketing costs, which was not prohibited before. SB4 could have gone a step further and required a financing plan for operations and maintenance by 2018 or 2019.

Sixth, the HART would be subject to an annual review by the state auditor; and a certification statement would be issued by the state comptroller before disbursing funds. Hawaii’s largest public works project should be audited periodically. I think we would all like to know how the GET surcharge has been spent, and who is responsible for rising costs and missed projections.

Did you submit testimony to the public hearing on August 28? Do you think legislators came up with a good funding plan? Who is responsible if rail transit is under-funded?


* Corrected: the surcharge is 0.5%, not 0.05%. Mahalo to a diligent reader who caught my typo!