Talking Turkey about Hawaii’s Spending

By Malia Hill

Courtesy StateDataLab.org

Courtesy StateDataLab.org

No one is going to faint from shock when I mention that Hawaii state spending for fiscal year 2012 outstripped income yet again, making us one of Truth in Accounting’s “turkey states”—that’s the thirteen states that overspent their income in 2012 despite the recovering economy. There’s some comfort to be found in the fact that we’re not the biggest turkey in the bunch. That dubious distinction goes to New Jersey, which ended up more than $5 billion in the red, though some of that is likely related to the effects of Super Storm Sandy. Hawaii is one of the smaller states, but with a net revenue of -.39 billion dollars, determined to overspend like a much larger one. We’re like the Rudy of poor state fiscal planning.

And we’re consistent. Sheila Weinberg, CEO of Truth in Accounting states that, “Since 2009 when we began analyzing state liabilities and assets available to pay debt, Hawaii has been our worst ‘Sinkhole State’ every year.  Each Hawaii taxpayer’s share of state debt was $41,300 at the end of fiscal year 2012.  The lack of truth and transparency in the budget process allows elected officials to claim they are “balancing” the budget, as required by law, and over-spend at the same time.”

Right. The unfunded liabilities. It’s funny how every analysis of our state economy and budget always comes back to the unfunded liabilities. This particular elephant in the room of our political discourse has grown big enough that we’re now compelled to acknowledge it, but too few people are willing to point out that there shouldn’t be an elephant in the darned room in the first place much less question how to get rid of it. Instead, most of the “solutions” we hear from the Governor and other political leaders amount to putting the elephant on a diet or moving him to the side a bit so he’s not blocking the TV anymore.

It’s as though we have—all of us—grown complacent about the state of Hawaii’s finances. We’re a state that overspends. We don’t look to the future. We continually raise taxes on businesses and further hamstring our own economic recovery. And then we shrug. That’s just how we are. Sure, it’s a shame. Yes, it definitely could be better. But what can we do about it?

Of course, there are those who continually raise the issue, exhort others to act, and push for change. Senator Slom, Civil Beat, Malia Zimmerman and others do try to shine a light on our disastrous spending practices and explain their effects. But one still wonders whether the message has completely sunk in: that this does matter. That it can be changed. And, though uncomfortable, change can be good. (Or, at the very least, failure to change is going to cause some very serious problems in the future.)

Hawaii doesn’t have to be a “turkey state.” We don’t have to make the top 10 on every single list highlighting poor spending practices, budget shortfalls, or state liabilities. We can stay true to our tradition of generosity, hospitality, and caring for others (especially family), without mortgaging the future for our children. We don’t have to be a paradise for the senses and hell for the business owner. But to do so, we have to break free from the complacency that seems to define how too many people look at the state political system. It’s time to talk turkey with our politicians—on both sides of the aisle—about the state of our state spending. And (sticking with the overuse of bird metaphors) it’s time for them to eat a little crow about the lack of action and foresight they’ve exercised so far. Even if it hard for them to swallow. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun.)

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