Highway safety compromised on Big Island

As any resident of reasonable intellect knows, the island of Hawaii is not a particularly safe place to drive. Incidents which involve crossing the centerline occur far too often with frightening results. The wide open, two lane highways meander though rolling countryside There are irresponsible motorists who drive without a license, registration or insurance. Arrests are up for those who drive undr the influence of alcohol and drugs. Solutions to these problems have been elusive.

However, there is one safety area that can be rather easily addressed. The weather conditions on the Big Isle produce frequent periods of fog and moderate to heavy rain. During such weather I have observed that nearly half of the traffic on the road does not have headlights on. This includes professional drivers like truckers who should know better. A turn out of a side road under thick fog or heavy rain onto a major highway becomes a crap shoot. Oncoming traffic without headlights on simply will not be seen.

A solution might be to post signs in areas prone to fog and rain that read: HEADLIGHTS ON IN RAIN OR FOG. A good use for some stimulus money perhaps.


Coqui frogs pollute Hawaii with noise

Over sixty thousand acres of the Big Island of Hawaii have been infested with the Coqui frog. The frog is a native of Puerto Rico where natural predators keep the population under control. In Hawaii there are no natural predators. Thus, the population is rapidly increasing. A female lays approximately 100 eggs every 21 days. The survival rate is around ninety percent. It is an explosion.

Coqui are about the size of a quarter and and a single frog generate 80 decibels of noise with their two note call. Only the males call. Eighty five decibels for extended periods has been shown to cause hearing loss.

Residents of some areas of the Big Island people must sleep with earplugs.

Sellers of real estate are required to  disclose the existence of the frog  and property values decrease accordingly.

Efforts to the control the pest have been sporadic and inconsistent. The State of Hawaii has shown little support for control.  The County of Hawaii has had a rather anemic program that has lost its funding. The U.S Department of Agriculture likewise has provided ineffective assistance.

Grass roots efforts by concerned citizens have had little official support or funding and, in spite of the valiant efforts of those few, the war is being lost.

The effect on tourism to date has probably been minimal, but sooner or later the word will get out to mainstream media that the noise pollution caused by the Coqui has diminished the visitor experience.

Perhaps the financial impact of the frog will generate interest in a government control plan. It is clear that come sort of  biological method will be required. This will require extensive research. Nearly 4.5 million dollars in federal stimulus money is going to fight invasive species in Hawaii. Zero dollars have been allocated to fight the Coqui frog.

This is an important environmental issue and needs to be included in this funding.

Governor Lingle agrees

In my previous posts I have been attempting to show the absurdity of the legislature’s position on the budget and it’s unwillingness to address the expense side of the equation. The following is a message from Governor Linda Lingle on the subject:

By Gov. Linda Lingle, 5/7/2009 9:00:00 AM

Aloha!
I have chosen to address the people of Hawai’i via this webcast because it is a critical time for our economy, and a decisive moment in the 2009 session of the State Legislature.

In just two days from now, on Friday, May 8th, the 2009 legislative session will come to a close. The budget passed by the Legislature in conference committee late last Friday evening takes $566 million out of the pockets of our visitors and residents, in an attempt to balance the budget. Last Friday, legislators also voted to extend the legislative session by two days so that they would be in a position to attempt to override my vetoes of tax increases without having to call a special session.

Tomorrow, on Thursday, May 7th at 3:30 p.m., I will follow through on my promise to veto these tax measures because they would further erode our already weakened economy, cause greater loss of jobs, and discourage visitors from coming to Hawai’i.

We know our economy is suffering because the evidence is all around us.

Hotel occupancy is at a 22-year low.

Visitor arrivals dropped 14 percent in the first quarter of this year compared to 2008, while visitor expenditures dropped 18 percent.

Foreclosures were up 500 percent in March, compared to a year ago.

Construction is down by at least 8 percent and the University of Hawai’i Economic Research Organization projects a 19 percent drop this year.

Hawai’i lost over 32,000 jobs between March of 2008 and March of this year.

I want to repeat this point. We lost over 32,000 jobs between March of 2008 and March of this year.

Our 7.1 percent unemployment rate is the highest it has been in 31 years.

In addition, many small and large businesses have been forced to layoff employees or close their doors completely.

Given this historically difficult economic environment, the public is asking: “Why would the Legislature raise taxes and hurt the economy now?”

More specifically, why has the Legislature passed a bill that will increase the taxes visitors and kama’aina pay on their hotel rooms by 28 percent?

Why would they destabilize an already weakened tourism industry, which creates nearly half of all economic activity in our state and on which four out of every five jobs is dependent?

An increase in the transient accommodations tax, or TAT, as the hotel room tax is known, has already generated negative national press regarding the potentially higher cost of a Hawai’i vacation. If this increase is allowed to stand, it will deter visitors from coming to Hawai’i and would be counter productive to our efforts to market Hawai’i as an affordable, value destination.

It will also decrease spending at our retail stores and restaurants, causing further job loss. Because, when visitors pay more in hotel taxes, they have less to spend on the rest of their vacation, including food, activities and gifts.

And this impacts everyone, not just the tourism industry.

It is estimated that for every one percentage point increase in the hotel room tax, 3,200 jobs will be lost in Hawai’i. Since the Legislature wants to increase the TAT by 2 percentage points over the next two years, there will be 6,400 more of our hard-working residents without a job.

The other tax increases approved by the Legislature will also delay our economic recovery and kill job creation efforts by my Administration and others.

The conveyance tax increase would discourage investment in Hawai’i at the exact time when we need capital to kick-start our economy. That’s because higher taxes on real estate transactions mean higher prices, which make it more difficult for businesses and individuals to finance real estate purchases. This will drive real estate investment away from Hawai’i to more competitive locations, which in turn will result in less work for our real estate and construction industries. The conveyance tax increases are particularly steep, amounting to more than a 250 percent increase for more expensive parcels. Further, no category is exempt from this conveyance tax. This means that non-profits, including churches and schools, would also pay significantly more for a new site or building.

The increase in the personal income tax rate for those earning above $150,000 as individuals and $300,000 for those filing jointly has been framed by Democrat legislators as a minimal extra burden on wealthy residents; but a look at the facts uncovers a different and more disturbing picture. That’s because this tax increase would also hurt the more than 27,000 small businesses that file their business income as personal income.

A small business with an income of $1 million will have to pay $22,625 more in taxes, giving it less money to pay its workers, create jobs and invest in equipment purchases. Hawai’i will also earn the distinction of having the highest state income tax rate in the nation at 11 percent. It is wrong to call this a tax on the wealthy. It is a tax on the very people who create jobs, contribute to non-profit organizations, and fuel our economy.

Democrats in the Legislature say they passed these tax increases because there were no other practical ways of closing the budget gap. They say they had no choice. That is not true.

In fact, the opposite is true.

There are clear alternatives to balancing the budget, and my Administration has recommended them over and over again in order to avoid tax increases that will be destructive to our economy and result in more lost jobs. Unfortunately, the Democrat majority in the Legislature has chosen to ignore these alternatives. You are right to ask why they preferred raising taxes instead of reducing labor costs associated with state government workers.

To help close the revenue shortfall, my Administration took proactive steps to restrict spending, freeze state government hiring, restructure debt, and scale back ineffective programs, resulting in over $1 billion in savings. In addition, we proposed several revenue enhancement measures and the use of new federal stimulus funds.

We also proposed labor savings of about $140 million in each year of the two-year budget as a way to prevent layoffs of public employees.

Because the state’s annual labor costs are about $3.6 billion, the savings we are seeking amounts to approximately 4 percent a year. This is the same kind of sacrifice that has already been made by union and non-union workers in the private sector all across our state.

Unfortunately, too many lawmakers have allowed their sense of obligation to the public employee unions to obstruct their view of the bigger picture and what’s best for our economy and all the people of Hawai’i.

During this time of shared sacrifice, lawmakers have shown little willingness to compromise. Instead, they are doing everything they can to pull the rug out from under the labor negotiations process so that public employees remain completely untouched by the enormous economic challenges we should all be facing together.

Legislators are gambling with the future of our state because of one constituency.

Unfortunately, misinformation about labor negotiations has been reported in the media and spread by some public employee union leaders. This only serves to stoke employee fears, and compromise what is supposed to be, by mutual agreement, a confidential process. I have not and will not negotiate in the media.

Negotiations are ongoing and we are making some positive headway, despite the obstructionist tactics of some legislators, who are supposed to be representing all taxpayers.

It is important to stress that labor negotiations are not an attack on public employees. We are not trying to, as some Democrats have asserted, balance the budget on the backs of public employees. We are asking for a shared sacrifice so we don’t have to break the backs of taxpayers.

I, and members of my Administration, have great respect for Hawai’i’s public workers and the work that they do. This is why we have offered wage increases of between 16 and 29 percent over the past four years when times were good. This is also why our current budget recommendations include no layoffs.

I believe the people of Hawai’i are looking to us to set a positive example of collaboration, and to agree on labor contracts that are fair to public employees but that also reflect a sense of shared sacrifice during these historically difficult economic times. I remain confident we will still be able to achieve this goal.

More than ever, Hawai’i’s elected officials, including myself, Lt. Governor Aiona, and our state lawmakers, need to do more than merely react to what is right in front of us. Even as we work to deal with a crisis that is immediate in nature, we need to be thinking ahead – about the long-term future of our state.

It was therefore with deep disappointment that I learned that four major initiatives we introduced to the 2009 Legislature did not pass this session – each under distressing circumstances. These initiatives would have modernized our state’s long-neglected infrastructure and contributed to Hawai’i’s pursuit of a clean energy future, while creating thousands of new jobs and helping our struggling construction industry.

Due to a lack of foresight and without any explanation as to why these bills were killed, Hawai’i will fall behind other states instead of fulfilling its potential to be a top visitor attraction, as well as a center of business and innovation. We’ve put off good initiatives for another year, at a time when we simply cannot afford to delay planning for the future any longer.

The Department of Transportation introduced an innovative plan to modernize our highways, but in the final days of the session, this bill, which had the support of the chairs of the House and Senate transportation committees, died.

The public, which has suffered in ever-increasing traffic is right to ask, “How come?”

The Highways Modernization Plan would have allowed the state to embark on an ambitious improvement program for our highways, saving motorists time and money and saving lives by focusing on highway safety. The six-year, $4.2 billion plan had a built-in funding structure that only would have kicked in after job growth had increased by 1 percent for two consecutive quarters. The plan was sensitive to the financial pressures residents are feeling right now. Only after the economy had begun to recover would modest increases in fuel and vehicle taxes and fees have taken effect. Furthermore, these increases would have been offset by hundreds of dollars in fuel savings because of less time spent sitting in traffic.

The Department of Land and Natural Resources this legislative session introduced a visionary Recreational Renaissance to restore and improve our state parks, trails and ocean recreational areas. This initiative would have used virtually no tax payer dollars. It would have upgraded the places that attract visitors to our islands and enhanced the quality of life of residents. This legislation also had the support of the House Majority Caucus, but in the final days of the legislative session, it too died.

Now $100 million in shovel-ready construction projects that would have kept our small boat harbors from falling into the water and our state parks safe for residents and visitors won’t happen. The projected 3,000 jobs these projects would have created won’t happen either.

When select legislators prevent an innovative plan from becoming reality with no explanation and behind closed doors, the public becomes concerned and is right to ask, “how come?”

The same question can be asked about the plan that was introduced this session to upgrade Hawai’i’s broadband telecommunications infrastructure.

A 21st century information highway is essential to creating the kind of high-paying jobs we want in the coming years. But right now, Hawai’i lacks the kind of bandwidth required for competitive advancements in education, health care diagnosis and treatment, research and innovation, creative media, and our overall economic transformation.

In planning for that future, my Administration worked with the Broadband Task Force to create a bill that would have accelerated our transformation into a true information economy, and which was aligned with the broadband initiative President Obama is embarking on nationally. Although the Legislature failed to act, Hawai’i will still compete for $200 million in federal stimulus funds for broadband infrastructure projects. We could have been poised to be one of the most advanced locations for internet service, instead we will remain one of the slowest.

In addition to these major initiatives, another disappointment was the failure of the Legislature to pass a ban on the construction of any new fossil fuel burning power plants. This was a measure which our Administration supported and which Hawaiian Electric Company, the state’s largest energy utility, agreed to. Rarely is there a time that the Legislature gets an issue handed to them with a ribbon around it, all tied up and ready to go. And still, the measure did not pass.

The public is right to ask, “How come?”

The failure of these initiatives amounts to missed opportunities.

Democrat legislators have said “no” to innovation, but offered no fresh ideas of their own. Their primary – and most destructive – action this session was to raise your taxes. The actions they took and those they didn’t take this session will delay Hawai’i’s economic recovery and stall job creation.

While it may be too late to revive the Highways Modernization, Recreational Renaissance, Broadband initiative, and the ban on fossil fuel burning power plants, there is still an opportunity for Hawai’i residents and businesses to make their voices heard on those tax increases that would hurt our economy and add to our already high unemployment numbers, by causing more jobs to be lost.

Tomorrow, Thursday afternoon at 3:30, I invite the public to join me at the State Capitol Rotunda when I plan to veto these tax increases – for the sake of our economy, our residents and our future.

All the people of Hawai’i can have a place at the table in determining how we overcome the current economic challenges we face as a state. I ask that you join me in choosing the wise, responsible and fair course of action. Tell your legislators that you oppose tax increases, before they meet on Friday to try to override my vetoes. If enough of our voices come together in opposition to these tax hikes, legislators may reconsider how they vote.

Mahalo for watching and listening to this Webcast and for participating in your state government. Please e-mail my office at mailto:governor.lingle@hawaii.gov with your thoughts and opinions on the 2009 legislative session and on Hawai’i’s future.

I am both honored and humbled to serve as Governor of the great State of Hawai’i. I will do everything in my power to ensure our economic recovery and lay the groundwork for a prosperous future.

Mahalo.

Watch the Governor’s web address at http://www.hawaii.gov/gov

Hawaii Taxing Internet Commerce

Tax or Cut?

The Hawaii state legislature is considering taxing internet commerce. This is just another example of state politicians addressing the wrong end of the problem.  In the private sector, management and labor would have to consider a combination of factors to deal with hard times. They might consider layoffs, reduction in hours, pay cuts, termination of matching 401K contributions, termination of defined benefit pension plans and reduction or elimination of health care benefits.

Your government looks at things a bit differently. They look at the other side of the equation and desperately search for ways to raise revenue through taxes and fees. Virtually every economist says raising taxes in an economic downturn is exactly what not to do. So, why is your legislature so intent on putting more of a burden on the residents of Hawaii?

To answer that question we must look at labor organizations and the conditions under which their power is gained or lost. A union’s power is directly related to the competitive environment of the employer.  A monopoly or oligopoly  conveys much more power to the unions than they would enjoy in a highly competitive market. The airline industry is a good example. Prior to 1978, when airlines were regulated, the unions were powerful. After deregulation, under the unrestricted entry of new carriers and unbridled competition, unions were forced into a concessionary mode that continues today.

Your government is a monopoly. Therefore, the public employee unions have enormous power. In Hawaii that power is further amplified. This expanded power comes from four factors:

First, According to FactCheck.org, Hawaii is tied with West Virginia as having the  lowest voter turnout in the nation. Only half of our eligible voters take to the polls.

Second: Government workers  in Hawaii constitute a significant percentage of the total work force. Hawaii ranks near the top in percentage of workers who work for the government.

Third: A higher percentage of those workers actually vote when compared to the general population.

Fourth: These workers tend to vote in a block due to union influence.

The result is that the public employees essentially put the government officials in office. Thus, the politicians are loath to adopt any cost saving measures that they would have to defend in the next election.

State and local government employee numbers nationwide have grown 40% faster than the general population. This would indicate that the power of public employee unions will only increase.

Unionized worker’s pay and benefits come from negotiated contracts. Private sector labor contracts are negotiated in an adversarial environment. Private sector union contracts are negotiated with the financial health and competitive position of the employers as factors. Public worker unions negotiate in an atmosphere in which the parties understand that the union may chose to fire the employers (through the election process). These are really not negotiations at all. They are more like the mating dance of the cranes: lots of squawking and  posturing, but the outcome has already been determined. Pay raises, working conditions improvement and increased benefits for all. Since the government (a monopoly) can simply raise its prices (taxes and fees) to cover the cost of the contract, it is less of a consideration during negotiations.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics data support the disparity between public and private sector workers. Nationwide, state and local employees receive 32% higher wages, 60% higher benefits and more job security than private sector workers. In Hawaii the disparity is probably much greater due to its high percentage of visitor industry employment. State & local government employees have superior medical, prescription and dental insurance benefits, at lower premium costs to themselves, than nearly all persons in the private sector. Retirement plans for public workers are far superior to those in the private sector. And the gap is rapidly growing as companies dump their defined benefit plans in favor of 401k and similar equity plans.

For example, medical care benefits were available to 71 percent of private industry workers, compared with 87 percent among government workers.  About half of private industry workers participated in a plan as compared to three-quarters of government workers. In Hawaii the number is closer to 100%

Sixty-one percent of private industry employees had access to paid retirement benefits, compared with 89 percent of State and local government employees.  Eighty-six percent of government employees participated in a retirement plan, significantly greater than the approximately half of private industry workers. In Hawaii the number is closer to 100%

Paid holidays, personal leave, and vacation are all much more generous for state and county employees than their public public sector counterparts.  Since 1995 property taxes nationwide have jumped 48%, that’s 30% higher than inflation.

When union officials take a non-concessionary stand they are just doing their jobs. When a politicians caves in to public union pressure, he or she is not doing their job and they are not representing the citizens of Hawaii.

Should private sector workers who are currently suffering the effects of the economic downturn in the form of pay cuts, layoffs, loss of  pensions and health care, pay more taxes and fees to support higher wages, benefits and job security for public employees? For the most part, your politicians say yes.

Communicating With Government

We are in the information age. We have the web,  emails, blogs, Twitter, Facebook and many other communications channels unheard of a short time ago. Is it now easier or more difficult to get a response from your government and elected officials?

It would appear that the overwhelming volume of electronic communications from constituents has reduced the response rate. The volume of mailed letters is probably not as great, but the so called “security” system now chokes off letters too. It is difficult to assess whether faxing a document is effective.

In the past year I have sent letters, emails and faxes to my state and federal officials on some very important issues. These documents were carefully crafted, factual and contained no vitriol. Out of about a dozen documents sent,  I received one form letter from Congressman Abercrombie, another form letter from Hawaii Governor Lingle and zero response from Senators Akaka, and Inouye. There was also no response from Congresswoman Hirono.

I have also communicated with the U.S Department of Labor in Washington, D.C and the District Enforcement Office in California regarding mishandling of corporate pension plans. Again, no response.

In the old days I received a response to every single letter to an elected official. From my personal perspective it would seem that cries in the wilderness go unheard.

Plug-in Electric Cars- No Panacea

If you listen to the media you would think that plug-ins are the answer to many of our energy and pollution problems. Not.

Pollution

Still there. It has merely shifted from the location of the vehicle to a powerplant some distance away.  The levels of pollution actually increase due to the inefficiencies of the transmission system and the fact that many of the powerplants on the mainland are coal fired. Every mile of transmission line decreases the power available at the plug. It is simply lost in heat.

Reduced petroleum consumption

Nope. See above.  In many area of the country there have been rolling ‘brownouts” during peak electricity use. What will be the effects of thousands of plug-in cars being juiced up?  Perhaps he politicians need a refresher in high school physics.