Hawaii's World

By A.A. Smyser

Thursday, October 24, 1996

‘Price of Paradise’
has contributed much

THE price of liberty is eternal vigilance," said Thomas Jefferson. For the last five years it has been adapted here to a wide variety of efforts under the name "Price of Paradise," the brainchild of a University of Hawaii law professor.

Now POP is going into hiatus - but only after becoming the most far-reaching, least self-interested private effort to promote civic activism this state has ever seen.

The interruption comes at a fascinating time - just after a new state Tax Review Commission has issued its recommendations to reform the state tax system, including a big tax cut.

The time is noteworthy. The ho-hum-to-hostile treatment given by the governor and Legislature to the 1990 report of the previous Tax Review Commission roused one of that commission's members to activism.

Like his six colleagues, Randall W. Roth, a University of Hawaii law professor, had given at least 500 hours of volunteer time to develop the report. He felt it at least deserved a public pro-con dialogue at the Legislature. Instead its major recommendations were deep-sixed with little discussion. Only a few of the less important ones - such as withholding tax from the sales price of property owned by foreigners - have become law.

A key recommendation attacked the practice of putting money into special funds to circumvent constitutional spending limits. The diversion murks up accountability. It leaves most legislators and the public unclear as to the state's real financial situation.

Surpluses were so heavy the 1990 commission recommended a tax cut unless the size of government was to be increased. The governor and Legislature took the big government course, hid it partly through special fund diversions and brought us to our 1995 financial crisis.

Now the special funds are depleted because of the state's financial crisis. However, they are still on the books and could be replenished with more of the "smoke and mirrors" techniques cited by the privately funded Tax Foundation of Hawaii, the only organization to really pick up and run with the 1990 recommendations.

The apathy of the Hawaii media vastly disappointed Roth. There was hardly any effort to follow up on the report, and interpret and analyze it for better public understanding.

That motivated Roth - always working free and spending thousands of his own dollars - to pull together a book of articles about civic issues, including some raised in the tax review report. It appeared in September 1992 under the name "Price of Paradise," sold a very high 25,000 copies and was able to use private donations to put 10,000 more copies in schools.

Volume II in 1993 sold 20,000 copies and 10,000 more went to schools. Low budgets and high levels of resourcefulness by some 100 volunteer writers and helpers marked every step of the way.

IN 1994 KHON-TV signed on along with the Honolulu Advertiser to sponsor "POP '94" candidate debates. Public TV and the Honolulu Star-Bulletin matched it with a "Power '94" series. Public radio began giving POP an hour at 8 a.m. every Sunday for radio dialogues. These have been backed up by pro-con articles in the Sunday Advertiser Focus Section on the topic to be discussed.

Roth has been the radio host and coordinator. His wife, Susan, has been producer. Their two youngest sons have been gophers around the set. The Roths all work free. They have used their own funds to provide coffee and pastries for some 300 guests, all of them chosen for their ability to contribute to the public dialogue.

Was it worthwhile? Has the level of civic awareness been raised? Surely the answer is yes. But has it been enough? Hardly. Roth regrets that more companion efforts didn't spring up and that none will immediately replace him.

He will be on sabbatical leave, teaching trust law at the University of Chicago's winter quarter from January through March. Plans are to resume the show when they come home next April but perhaps not on a weekly basis.

A.A. Smyser is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
His column runs Tuesday and Thursday.

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