Thursday, April 8, 1999
School plan could
mean higher taxesThe issue: A proposal to give the Board of Education tax powers to raise more money for the public schoolsSENATE President Norman Mizuguchi's proposal to give the Board of Education taxing authority sounds like a way to strengthen public education, but it could hurt the economy and boomerang on government revenues. The danger that the plan could increase the burden of Hawaii taxpayers was outlined in testimony at a Senate hearing.
Our view: Between the Legislature and the Board of Education, the burden on the taxpayer might become heavier.
Lowell Kalapa, the highly respected president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, warned that the measure could give the Department of Education more money than it needed, robbing other state programs and forcing the Legislature to raise other taxes to compensate for the loss. Kalapa endorsed the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii's concerns that giving the Board of Education tax power could increase the total tax burden.
What would happen, Kalapa said, is that the school board, the Legislature and the counties will each claim that "their source of revenues is insufficient to fund their responsibilities, and so up will go tax rates.
"In the meantime, since each player -- state, county and BOE -- operates in a vacuum, each oblivious to the other's burden of taxes, only the taxpayer will know what truly high burden is being imposed."
Carl Takamura, executive director of the Hawaii Business Roundtable, said that the group strongly opposes authorizing the Board of Education to enact a sales tax -- on top of the existing general excise tax.
He noted that "Hawaii already has the dubious distinction of being one of the highest taxed states in the nation and the last thing we need is yet another tax to add to our reputation."
The rationale for Mizuguchi's plan is that more accountability is needed in public education. That is true, but this plan would strengthen accountability by creating another state tax authority in addition to the Legislature. The Board of Education would be free to raise the income tax and impose a new sales tax in order to generate whatever amount of revenue it decided was needed for the public schools.
Meanwhile the Legislature would be left to fund all other state programs by the general excise tax and whatever other fees or taxes it might devise. There would be no overall cap on taxation, and, as Kalapa argued, the chances are that between the Legislature, the Board of Education and the county councils they would raise taxes. No body would have responsibility for the effect of taxes on the economy, as the Legislature now has because it alone decides the level of state taxation.
It would not be sound policy to create such a situation -- particularly when the state economy is weak and the need is for tax relief, not increases. Higher taxes could damage the economy and result in less tax revenue.
The public schools probably need more money and more accountability, but not this way. Having just one body -- the Legislature -- with the authority to impose state taxes is enough of a problem. Two would be worse.
Fortunately, the lower house seems to be having none of this. Speaker Calvin Say is supporting Governor Cayetano's proposal to give the governor authority to appoint the Board of Education, thereby making him accountable for the performance of the school system. That would be a better solution to the problem of accountability.
Church and stateThe issue: Whether legislators have the right to post religious symbols on their office doors.STATE legislators' office doors have become the latest battleground in the conflict between the First Amendment guarantee of freedom of religion and the clause banning "an establishment of religion."
Our view: Their opponent is carrying the principle of separation of church and state to absurd lengths.
Mitchell Kahle, leader of a group called Hawaii Citizens for Separation of Church and State, objected when Sen. David Matsuura put an image of a fish, a symbol of Christianity, on his office door, claiming that it was unconstitutional.
But the office of the attorney general issued an opinion stating that Matsuura had a right to post the image on his door, as a matter of personal expression.
Sen. Sam Slom supported Matsuura's action by attaching a string of religious symbols to his own office door.
Kahle then took matters into his own hands, posting "Darwin" emblems supporting the theory of evolution and "Keep Church and State Separate" signs on Matsuura's and Slom's doors. Heannounced, "I declare this a free-speech zone." Kahle contended that since state rules limiting posted signs were not being enforced against legislators, he was free to post his own signs on the doors. Matsuura and Slom took down Kahle's signs.
The principle of separation of church and state is not absolute, as Kahle claims. At least as important is freedom of religion. Matsuura was exercising his right to religious freedom when he posted a Christian symbol on his office door. No reasonable person could interpret that gesture as anything more than a personal expression of faith, certainly not as an attempt to establish an official church.
Kahle has his own right of freedom of religion -- or nonreligion -- but he is trying to deny that right to legislators on the ground that their office doors should not be used for religious expression. The attorney general disagrees.
Kahle's crusade -- excuse the religious connotation -- carries the principle of separation of church and state to absurd lengths. He has a right to post his separation signs -- but not on the legislators' office doors without their permission.
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