Current Thoughts (Mostly Hawaii)

We like the tax break, but…

This blogger would first like to shout out to Civil Beat for distributing questions to the candidates and publishing them promptly. Furthermore, this blogger also wants to recognize that the questions being posed are relevant to what is happening currently, which leads to this piece – an observation of answers to one question.

A call by some in Hawaii to cut income taxes got heard. Income taxes for residents in Hawaii will be cut over the next 10 years.
PC: “ReadMySign” by AR McLin is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

In the set of questions, each candidate was asked, paraphrasing, what did you think of the recent state income tax cut that the Governor signed into law? More specifically, the question asked, “How do you feel about the massive income tax cut just approved by the Legislature and the governor? Do you have any concerns that it will force reductions in state services in the years to come?”

Now in a way, it’s a leading question, almost begging for an answer that fits the question. The interesting thing is that a lot of the candidates who submitted answers came back with nearly the same response,

“Yeah, I like it, but….”

The “but” part was largely about whether the state would be able to meet its financial obligations after the budget cuts take effect, potentially reducing the state’s revenue. This is a fair concern because if a household has less money coming in (for example, if a family member’s income is reduced or if someone starts a new job at a lower salary), there would naturally be worry about making ends meet.

In the case of the state, the worry is about whether essential services to the people would be affected. Some, like House District 20 candidate Tina Nakada Grandinetti, are saying that it will impact social services. Other candidates, such as House District 24 candidate Jillian Anderson, believe it will require the state to “do more with less”.

Here is the thing about both the focus of the question, and how some of the candidates answered it. For years, going back to the Ige administration, the state never faced a deficit. The last time this blogger remembers a crisis that would put the state into a budget deficit was during the Lingle, and going back more, the Cayetano administrations.

And both of those times, the books did get balanced through a combination of hacking the budget, changing retirement policy for state employees into the Employment Retirement System, and withholding spending to nonprofits.

One of the reasons why the Hawaii Legislature and its governor passed the income tax cut is because it determined that with proper accounting for what it needed, it was taking in too much. Now we wait to see if their accounting is accurate to accommodate the future.
PC: “Accounting” by 401(K) 2013 is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

That has not been the case for several years. And all during that time the State hemmed and hawed at the idea that it had to give back surplus monies to the people when the state experienced a budget surplus. See Article VII, Section 6 of the Hawai‘i State Constitution.

It even got to the point where, in an amendment to that article, in 2010 and 2016, to move surplus monies to the rainy day or pension funds. The state, over the past decade, has done all three and still, there is money left over.

Yes, while the expenses for providing government services have increased, there was never any question about whether they would get paid. Now, with the tax cut, everyone is concerned about whether we can cover our bills.

This blogger finds that a bit alarmist and indicative of an underlying message whenever any of the candidates says, “I like it, but…”, in that they are also pointing the finger at the current legislature and its members, and saying point blank, “we don’t trust that you have considered all issues when you passed this bill.”

Are the candidates who said “We like the tax break, but…” going to get elected, and then as soon as they are seated, start expressing concerns about the state budget and moving towards reversing the recently passed tax breaks?

We will have to see. As a public service announcement, residents eligible to vote will get their ballots in the mail on or about the 23rd of July.

Vision Realized: FestPAC Makes Hawai’i a Pacific Crossroads, Fulfilling John Burns’ Vision

As with many in Hawai‘i over the past month, the 13th convening of the Festival of Pacific Arts & Culture, in Hawai‘i for the first time, brought a great deal of excitement to Honolulu in and above the normal rigamarole of everyday life after graduation season.

From the news reports, the Festival turned out to be very popular, with many more in attendance than first imagined. Estimates right now say that about 500,000 attendees for its 11-day duration.

Even for people, like this blogger, who go to many cultural events and think of the attendance as “meh”, the fact that a half-million came out to this one, in Hawai‘i, was impressive.

John A Burns was the second Governor of the State of Hawaii and a leader who had a vision that led to what FestPac turned out.
PC: LBJ :: Online Photo Archive Search, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

With the event being so far and wide, it turned out that one of these humble writers’ co-workers was working the event, taking time to be there.  In that discussion about their attendance, a historical marker came up that I don’t think they knew.

That was the vision that the second state Governor of Hawai‘i, John Burns had about what Hawai‘i could be as it became the 50th state. The person sounded interested but probably knew nothing about this part of Hawai‘i’s history, and how 49 years after Burns’s death, his vision came alive with FestPac.

WHEN JOHN BURNS WAS elected governor in 1962, Hawai‘i was within a handful of years of becoming a state, in 1959. As he evolved as a leader in the state, winning elections again in 1966 and 1970, he began and then promoted a vision of the future of Hawai‘i.

A big part of that vision came from the idea that Hawai‘i, now emerging onto the world stage as part of the United States, could become a true “crossroads of the Pacific” in which the exchange of ideas from Asia, and the United States/west, could come together in friendly exchange, elevating the state and its importance in the world.

It was a lofty goal and required a vision that looked beyond bringing people to Hawai‘i for events. It first started with building up an infrastructure that could handle the capacity of more people coming to Hawai‘i. That build-out included roads and airports.

The other part was marketing the islands as a premier destination. While some will criticize Burns for marketing the islands more for tourists, he did try to expand this out by establishing more durable economic exchanges with Pacific Rim countries  

Unfortunately, at the end of his term, due to illness, as he passed away in office, Burns had created the baseline for Hawai‘i’s ability to be a destination for people and cultural exchanges like FestPac.

It only took another 49 years to see that vision happen.

FestPAC Hawaii Logo
PC: FestPac Facebook page

THE REASON WHY FestPAC finally brought Burns’s vision to life is that it held all the hallmarks of what he wanted to see as an event highlighting Hawai‘i’s role as a crossroads of the Pacific.

One of those hallmarks was accessibility. The fact that a reported 500,000 people attended should assume that a vast majority of that attendance was done by local folks. Unlike other major events in Hawaii, such as the Asia Development Bank (ADB) meeting in 2001 and the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation Economic Leaders’ Meeting in 2011, regular people could celebrate alongside the attendees.

Both of those cited events were indeed high profile but also had high barriers for most people to attend. This blogger recalls how the authorities limited the ability of people to protest at the Asian Development Bank meeting, literally putting up barriers and herding them into a small corridor as a planned protest march.

For APEC, it more felt like it was an event that Hawai‘i didn’t want to do, but because President Obama was from Hawai‘i and it was the United State’s turn to host, Hawai‘i got the gig. But as with the ADB, the ability for anyone resident to “just go and check it out” was not possible.

While Hawai‘i does host great cultural events like Night in Chinatown, the Okinawan Festival, the Honolulu Festival, and even the Memorial Day lantern floating at Ala Moana Beach Park, that the public can attend, their overall imprint on Hawai‘i is already baked in, meaning that everyone knows what will happen, what food will be there and what the event is for.

FestPac, instead, was something new, and exciting which piqued the curiosity of the state, along with it feeling that it was bigger than just a cultural festival. Leaders came (like the King of Aotearoa, Te Arikinui Tūheitia Pākī) of which people could go see and be amongst.

And that in itself creates memories, good memories, of which people in Hawai‘i might want to see more of, in the future.

WHILE IT MIGHT NOT BE FESTPAC, as the event happens only once every four years and as mentioned, a location may get to host it once in a lifetime, that should not mean that Hawai‘i couldn’t see more of this type of event happening in the state.

If the state could get itʻs act together about building a new stadium, it could attract other FestPac-like events that will enrich the people and place that is the State of Hawaii.
PC: “Hawaii2015-189” by ajay_suresh is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

For instance, there are Pacific-regional events that, if Hawai‘i could figure out how to build a stadium, could host a Pacific regional sports event like the Pacific Games.

And maybe it does not need to be that big of an event. Maybe what Hawai‘i could do is what Taiwan regularly does and host specific non-governmental events and promote them as resident-attend friendly. This blogger remembers being in Taipei, the capital of Taiwan, and seeing the promotion of the “Universiade”, which is now called the World University Games.

And who knows, maybe if Hawai‘i is tapped to do APEC again, or another international governance event like APEC, maybe the state can inform the entity that it would like to have the ability to have more touch with the people of Hawai‘i while here.

After all, one thing that Burns wanted to have in his vision was for those events to be relevant.

Hawai‘i’s Scrutiny: Fair or Fickle?

When it comes to how leaders in Hawai‘i are treated, the first rule that one should know is that no two leaders of anything in Hawai‘i are treated the same, no matter what their position.

This blogger came up with this conclusion after witnessing the treatment of three leaders of Hawai‘i over the past couple of years. In two of them, the observations are much more recent – the last two to three months.

Who we are talking about here in this blog post is the leaders of the University of Hawai‘i, David Lassner; the Chief Executive Officer of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART), Lori Kahikina; and General Kenneth Hara, Adjutant General for the State of Hawai‘i.

Each of them holds a high profile, and in at least the case of the Adjutant General, power that could widely transform how Hawai‘i works in the case of an emergency, at the snap of a finger. But when it comes to how the powers that be or the general population looks at them, you will find that each has been given a custom-made treatment.

Here is that observation

The University of Hawai‘i President David Lassner

David Lassner
PC: University of Hawaii Leadership webpage

Since being named the president of the University of Hawai‘i in July 2014, David Lassner has navigated the school through the upsets that the last leadership left, implementing immediate and widespread changes due to COVID in March 2020, the pivot of key sports from state facilities like Aloha Stadium to the T.C. Ching complex, and navigating various internal upheavals throughout all of these events.

One might assume that, based on this list, his upcoming retirement as President would be viewed as a time for positive reflection on his term and the progress he has brought to the school.

Yeah, fat chance.

Instead, in a very public way, Lassner has been criticized by the State Legislature for various “sins” that, in some cases, have a more tangential than direct link. While it is true that no leader is perfect, it seems that even stubbing his toe and yelling “ow” will elicit a letter from State Senators or various pressure groups for him to walk it off and pipe down.

Some of the criticisms, including spending and administrative pay raises and the handling of the Thirty-Meter Telescope on Hawai‘i Island are as much issue drive as they are politics-driven, and if handled differently, would have potentially elicited different reactions from the various groups that make their opinions known on such things.

But because he has chosen not to be combative, to certain groups that seem to needle him in trying to get a rise out of him, his legacy may be initially written by those who have the most to gain by massively dissing him.

It’s not unnoticed by this blogger that those interested in becoming president after Lassner steps down are taking note of the current efforts to oppose him. The expectation is that criticism of the president will continue regardless of who holds the position. This makes the job less peaceful and potentially less appealing to qualified candidates.

Chief Executive Officer of the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit (HART), Lori Kahikina

Just like with Lassner, Kahikina stepped into the role of CEO of HART with something of a honeymoon attached to the hire. With upsets with past CEOs and the increasing irritation of the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) when it came to leadership, Kahikina was a veteran of the City, but a new face for this high-profile project.

And, it seemed, the honeymoon got extended a few times since her hire in January 2021. With a new Mayor and a new idea of what the rail system would be for the people of Honolulu, she proceeded to fix sticky problems with the project itself, stabilize the budget that seemed to be increasing every few months, and got the project to the point where the first phase of it got running in late June 2023.

And, by the way, she also was able to get monies released from the Federal Government that was on hold due to questions FTA had about its viability, among other things. So you would think that, past the honeymoon, the leaders of Honolulu would look favorably upon Kahikina, and maybe extend her contract beyond the end of 2024.

Well, in shaking a metaphorical Magic 8 Ball, the answer back is “Outlook is not so good”.

Once again, the leaders with power over the project are the reason for the mistreatment of Kahikina. Recently, there was a public disagreement between Kahikina and Colleen Hanabusa, the Rapid Transit Board Chair, and former Congresswoman, regarding the departure of a key project manager.

This public spat has raised the question of whether Kahikina would be kept on as CEO, with speculation focused on whether she should be fired and someone else brought in or kept on and her contract extended.

But unlike Lassner, who has quiet cheerleaders, Kahikina got a very public boost recently from Honolulu Mayor Rick Blangiardi, who wrote to the HART board of his support of Kahikina, and to direct the board to resolve its differences offline. It would seem that Kahikina, in this case, is getting support against what could be seen as one-way bullying (at least in Kahikina’s view)

And that might be a nice thing considering that, on its face, the way she is being treated as a leader, could be considered miserable.

The Adjutant General of the State of Hawai‘i, Kenneth Hara

While both Lassner and Kahikina are slogging through, the retirement notice of State of Hawai‘i Adjutant General Kenneth Hara is truly the opposite.

Instead of being shown the door and being told “Don’t let the door hit you….” on exit, his retirement notice came with nothing less than praise and an extended interview on Hawai‘i News Now, highlighting his service to Hawai‘i.

And in general, if one looks at the literature out there General Hara is more-or-less seen as someone who has done very little wrong, kept Hawai‘i safe, and was able to handle the storms of COVID and the Lahaina wildfire.

However, looking at the replacement for Hara, one should note how important the Adjutant General is to Hawai‘i becoming more focused. And this is where, while we might praise the man in his departure, should the state be more critical about his replacement – Gen. Stephen Logan.

So far, in the news, the newly named Adjutant General has elicited zero noise. And this is for a person who could if the situation arises, become the military governor of Hawai‘i in the event of martial law.

While it’s not automatic, there’s a strong possibility the Adjutant General would be considered for the role. The final decision would come from the appointing authority, which could be the Governor or a higher military official depending on the situation.

That is pretty hard-core leadership that they may have to wield. However, no word of this seriousness has come out in the announcement that Logan will become the new Adjutant General of the State of Hawai‘i.

Meanwhile, two other people who hold much less serious positions, but are leaders in Hawai‘i nonetheless, are getting their reputations, legacies, and even their jobs, picked on right and left.

So, a question to leave with the reader, should leadership in Hawai’i be a popularity contest, or should it be judged on results and the ability to navigate complex situations? Should leadership in Hawai‘i for one not be the same as for the others? And are we going down a road by which the leader with the stronger “political tribe” survives better than the one with a weaker tribe?

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