Hawaii’s World

By A.A. Smyser

Thursday, January 21, 1999

The state should
delegate more power

THE state Legislature proved something important in 1998: It really does know how to delegate power. We need more -- for the public good.

Ours is the most centralized state government in America. Forget the home-rule talk in years past by the same Democratic Party that still rules us.

Once the Democrats won it all, they expanded the powers of state government instead of reducing them. Only now are we seeing a turn the other way.

The 1998 Legislature relinquished its penny-pinching, patronage-pushing power over the Hawaii Visitors and Convention Bureau. It gave rather generous self-appropriating funds to a new Hawaii Tourism Authority. Praise be!

It gave the sprawling University of Hawaii system greater autonomy than ever before. However, UH for a long time will remain heavily reliant on state funding and have to justify appropriations.

I never was elected to public office or even ran for one. But I have been close enough to politics to know the sense of responsibility winning can create, also the sense of power.

The winner can feel ordained by the public to know everything, solve every problem. Some winners also get pushy about their power. It is heady stuff to have university presidents, kings of industry and more appear before them as supplicants.

Balance is needed. Legislators indeed must set broad policy, draft laws, decide how to tax us, fund the activities of the state and get the information needed to do it well.

But a little humility about the idea that legislators therefore can and should run EVERYTHING is very much in order. The 1998 delegations of power are first-rate examples of the kind of humility we need more of.

Overall a policy of more privatization of government functions is likely to prove sound if carefully done.

Another good 1999 step would be to give more authority and more revenues to the counties. The state Land Use Commission should focus on statewide land policy and leave the rest to the counties.

Honolulu badly needs help to manage Waikiki. It has most of the responsibility today. But revenues from the transient accommodations tax (the hotel room tax) keep being skimmed off for the state.

An idea that should have few foes but has gone unresolved for years is to eliminate expensive overlaps of state/county responsibilities for roads, parks and other services. We still have one segment of a road under state control, another under a county.

Give the job to whoever can do it best. Often that may be the counties. Legislators should swallow hard and give away some of these overlaps, plus the money to handle them.

Democrats shouted "home rule" to the hilltops as they swept to power in the 1950s and 1960s. When they won, they took over all school maintenance and hospitals from the counties and made centralization stronger than ever.

They also passed laws intended to promote honesty -- as in state purchasing -- that have the main effect of delaying action and adding to bureaucracy. Some checks need many more signers than private industry requires.

THE state has taken back significant shares of general excise tax revenue that used to go to the counties. The counties now rely mostly on politically sensitive real property taxes. A public buzz saw greets efforts to boost them.

Honolulu homeowners reaped savings when assessed values dropped in recent years but are offended that the city, which has considerably increased its efficiency, now says it needs more money to meet growing fixed costs, including state-negotiated pay raises.

Let's hope our elected 51 representatives and 25 senators will delegate away still more power and bucks in 1999 to be used more efficiently and effectively by others.

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

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