What do we want to pay for? What is Hawaii willing to do without?

Beth-Ann Kozlovich

HONOLULU—Sometimes you get what’s advertised. The 2010 legislative session ended last week and whether or not you found solace in the fact that not many escaped unscathed this time around, at least there weren’t any real surprises. Many lawmakers, including House Finance Chair Marcus Oshiro, were straightforward in their stated purpose: Every pocket of money would have to be turned out on the table and potentially reapportioned to find the necessary $1.2 billion to plug the budget gap. It would be a daily struggle.

Going into session, Oshiro said there were three questions to ask ourselves: “What are we willing to pay for? What are we willing to do without? What do we want Hawaii to look like when this recession is over?”

Going out, he says the same thing. For Oshiro, the answers center around four areas: health and human services, the University (including community colleges), and the Department of Education. The specifics of those answers showed up in some last minute saves including Kupuna Care, Healthy Start, and welfare offices. So, he says, a lot went right about this session.

While many lawmakers used the same words, “core functions,” to describe what had priority protection, disentangling the meaning of core government functions was another matter entirely. Depending on who you talked to, Oshiro said in January, core functions could simply be entitlements we’d grown used to.

Nonnegotiable for many parents was finding funding to finish off Furlough Fridays. (And I’m glad this isn’t radio so you only have to read all that alliteration.) The Legislature carved out $67 million to reinstate the 17 days in next school year’s calendar. Still, the furlough days will only end if and when the Governor releases the money. Nothing new there, either. Except that this time—whatever she does with this and other measures for which she holds the wallet—will be the last time.

Oshiro hopes those interested in any of the outcomes will continue to be vocal. Prior to session, Oshiro announced public input would be a factor in decision-making and that he hoped citizens would turn out to make their preferences known. While business and labor interests sat down as usual with lawmakers, “The nonprofit sector really came out strong,” he says. “They have some strong organized advocates who used the technology available to most of us, and used it correctly. I met with them throughout the session.”

Even so, $46 million in special funds will move to the general fund. Some organizations are relieved that there were no further raids this year on their particular funds, which may have been sliced last year. Regardless of how “lucky” an organization may have gotten off this session, a feeling that once a fund is rerouted, it will never revert to its own unique earmark still creeps around many a nonprofit. Oshiro says that shouldn’t cause alarm.

“Those monies that are transferred from special funds and revolving funds pay for essential services: healthcare, educational, environmental, and monitoring services,” Oshiro says. “These are excess fund balances that the agencies, divisions, and departments tell us they don’t need at the present time.”

Really? Wouldn’t most organizations want to exercise more direct choice in how a special fund serves the needs it was created to bankroll? But okay, maybe this goes back to the ethos of the session: a little pain and loss of control for just about everyone—or more to the point, additional scrutiny and justification for special funds and everything else in general.

Although the GET wasn’t hiked as had been threatened (Oshiro says he sticks by the rationale that those who could least afford the pervasive tax would be the ones unfairly disadvantaged by it), all of us will feel the effects of the barrel tax. In July, it is set to move from 5 cents to $1.05. Average families will pay a few cents more per gallon and see an increase to their monthly electric bills of a little less than $1.

The point is twofold: Raise some needed cash and force ourselves to reevaluate how we use petroleum based energy.  Of the $13 million Oshiro expects the tax to generate, 30 percent will go to clean energy initiatives—half of what will flow into the general fund. That ratio is expected to be maintained until 2015 and will help fund agriculture and renewable energy credits, including home installations of solar and other renewable energy systems.

Meanwhile the tech sector lost its campaign against deferring Act 221 credits and Oshiro believes theirs was a hollow argument. He thinks the decision to forestall credits will have a far smaller impact on business development than techbiz proponents claim it will.

“It’s for a temporary period of three years. We’re not taking any credit away from them. Every year they’re going to have to qualify and prove that they’re entitled to these credits at the Department of Taxation. Other states have actually taken away credits.”

While the true outcome of many of the bills passed by the Legislature now rests with the Governor, Oshiro says he would have preferred a process with a little less of the usual acrimony. A lot of us would have, too,—from everyone. In a year like this one, following a year like last, turning down the volume on the partisan noise and governmental branch bickering would have been welcome.

But the good news is the session is now over and somehow we managed to survive the process if not yet the outcomes, many of which are still unknown. While the governor weighs her options and her legacy, one thing is certain. Now is not the time to give up discussing those three questions: What are we willing to pay for? What are we willing to do without? What do we want Hawaii to look like when this recession is over?

The entire interview with Representative Marcus Oshiro is on the Town Square archive at hawaiipublicradio.org.