Sunday, January 4, 2004


Counties should have more
power over fiscal fate


Local government officials are seeking approval for various measures from the state Legislature.

THE CITY'S recent struggle to find a way to raise money to pay for raises for Honolulu police officers illustrates the problems Hawaii's counties have with their limited revenue sources and the sway the state holds over them. Attempts to loosen the state's grip predictably has met stout resistance from lawmakers and previous administrations. Governor Lingle's experience on the other side of the fence as well as her Republican philosophy may lend some aid to the counties' crusade for more fiscal control.

Nonetheless, a revived proposal the Legislature considered last year that would grant counties with populations of at least 200,000 the authority to impose a general excise tax remains problematic. Another measure that would turn over fines from uncontested traffic violations to the counties should be approved.

The two propositions are among a wish list of others the Hawaii State Association of Counties has developed for consideration when the state Legislature convenes later this month.

The perennial request for the traffic fines revenue has failed to win authorization when fairness clearly dictates it should. County police departments carry out enforcement of the laws that impose traffic fines and county governments bear the costs of administration, supplies, equipment and issuing citations.

If a violation is uncontested the state incurs little, if any, expense, but keeps the money anyway and funnels it into the state general fund.

Honolulu City Council chairman Donovan Dela Cruz points out that revenue from traffic fines on Oahu totaled $7.5 million last year, an amount that would have been enough to cover the police pay increases that the Council raised the city's vehicle weight tax last month to fund.

The governor, who proffers support of home rule, should push lawmakers to relinquish these funds to the counties. Home rule, however, takes a different slant when applied to giving taxing authority to the counties.

The proposal would apply only to Honolulu since it is the only county that meets the population qualification. In addition, the measure trades the city's portion of the state's hotel room tax for the taxing power and redistributes that amount to various tourism-related agencies and programs when the hotel tax shares were intended to offset the effects tourism has on counties. Although the other counties could see an increase of their shares, the complicated formula for distribution of the balance does not seem to benefit residents, who would take a direct hit if a general excise tax were imposed.

Moreover, if home rule is the intent of such legislation, only one county would gain the advantage. The objective would be genuine if the state would first release counties from the many other entanglements, such as statewide employee contracts.

Counties unquestionably should have more control of their fiscal futures, but the measure as it now stands allows only one of them a small element of that control. True home rule entails much more and county officials should not be satisfied with this offer. Otherwise, they'll continue to have to go hat in hand to the state, seeking small favors.



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