President's Message - Pleased to Be President of a PIG (Sue Irvine)
League Tribute to Dr. Robert Watada (Mary Anne Raywid)
Post Script to Bob Watada's May 21 Convention Speech (Jaurene Judy)
Legislative Report (Jean Aoki)
Progress on Clean Elections (Laure Dillon)
Silver Legislature (Grace Furukawa)
Gambling Front (Grace Furukawa)
Latest Assault on Press Freedom: Assassination of Samir Kassir (Beth Ann Kozlovich)
Highlights (and an Update) from Annual Reports
Case for a Single-Payer Health System (Jean Aoki)
With national issues claiming so much of the media's (and my) attention, I eagerly jumped at the opportunity to testify on resolutions in support or opposition to proposed national policies. While these do not have the effect of laws, they do inform our congressional delegation of the views of the folks back home.
As background, we need to keep the following in mind.
The National Debt as of June 3, 2005 at 2:31:05 a.m. GMT is: $7,789,302,113,925.67 The estimated population of the United States is 296,233,548 so each citizen's share of this debt is $26,294.46, and continues to grow at a rate of $1.67 billion per day since September 30, 2004.
Senate Concurrent Resolution No. 76. This year, I supported SCR (Senate Concurrent Resolution) No. 76 and its companion measure, HCR 186, which expressed opposition to the privatization of Social Security, and to the proposed changes to the Social Security System. Well-written and comprehensive, SCR No. 76 was allowed to pass both houses and has been dispatched to the President of the United States, the Speaker of the U.S. House, the President of the U.S. Senate, and the members of the Hawaii Congressional delegation.
While workers should be encouraged to save more and invest in IRA's, 401 (k)s, etc., Social Security is still needed to serve as a safety net for all, and beginning to privatize even a part of it would add to the nation's debt because so much of the FICA taxes would be diverted from the Social Security Trust Fund. While eventual changes will have to be made either to raise the FICA tax, raise the cap on the amount of income subject to the tax, reduce benefits, or move the eligibility date to reflect the longer life span of beneficiaries, or a combination of all four or more, it needs to be carefully studied and planned. The urgency is not present to require hasty and possibly unwise choices.
Above all, iron-clad provisions must prohibit the use of surplus social security funds for other purposes. Otherwise, any additional surpluses generated by changes in the financing of Social Security will only be diverted to shore up the general budget deficit, and we'll be facing, at some future date, the same situation we will be facing in 2018, with the outgoing money outpacing the income from the FICA taxes, and the U.S. Treasury not having the funds to redeem IOU's in the Social Security Trust Fund.
Repeal of The Estate Tax
Another issue that I addressed (League's testimony was the only one in opposition with only the Hawaii Automobile Dealers' Association testifying in support) is the proposed permanent repeal of the Estate Tax. This, together with the reduced capital gains taxes and dividends tax for which the intent seems to be eventual total exemption, would lead to the eventual exemption of all investment income from taxation. This would leave taxes on wages and salaries supporting most of the activities of our federal government. Aside from the fairness issue, at a time when the nation faces mounting deficits and debt, why are we exempting investment income from taxation?
The concern expressed in this resolution seemed to be the plight of Hawaii farmers who might be especially adversely affected by the Estate Tax because of the high value of land here, and the sentiment was that because they are valuable contributors to Hawaii's economy, we should be supporting them in the effort to build up their wealth to pass on to their heirs, allowing them to continue farming. There are exemptions in place for all citizens, according to the current plan. Under the Economic Growth and Tax Relief Reconciliation Act of 2002 (EGTRRA), the tax exemption is scheduled to rise to $3,500,000 and the tax rate lowered to 45%. The estate Tax would be permanently repealed in 2010, and then in 2011 the estate tax reverts to the pre-EGTRRA system unless the repeal is extended or made permanent.
In the Pre-EGTRRA plan the family farms and businesses were given special treatment after the head dies, especially if someone in the family were willing to continue the farm or other business, and the exemption for every estate would rise to $1 million by 2006. If needed, the exemption amount could be raised and indexed to inflation, and/or the rate lowered for estates up to a certain amount and other reforms added. But this most progressive of taxes, even more progressive than the income tax, should not be repealed.
S.C.R. No. 73 was amended to include raising the exemption and lowering the rate as an alternative and passed out by the Senate Committee on Intergovernmental Affairs, and sent to the Ways & Means Committee where it died without a hearing.
Back to Local Issues
We do try to cover all "good government" bills such as ethics, campaign finance reform, access to government information and open meetings, civil rights, elections, and as time permits, we venture into other areas which we monitor even if we don't take action. These are too numerous to discuss, so I'm going to focus on some of the "access" bills.
What I call "Access Bills" run the gamut from citizen access to information collected by government, open meetings, our community access television stations like 'Olelo, televising of legislative proceedings, and bills related to our "Access Room" where the public can find information, equipment and tools needed to track bills, write testimony, look up hearing schedules, and watch hearings and floor sessions over the in-house television system.
H.B. No. 551 A Bill for an Act Relating to Public Meetings was passed by both houses with different amendments, went to conference committee meetings, and emerged with amendments to pass both houses. The Governor signed it into law as Act 84. A similar bill appears periodically in an attempt by some to relax the requirements of what we call the "sunshine law." Many board members feel that it is too restrictive and impedes their work, and, in their arguments, tend to exaggerate the consequences of this law. It is a difficult law to fashion just right. If it is too restrictive, it may make it difficult for board members to function. If it is too lax, the purpose for having the law is defeated. The objective of the sunshine law is to make sure board meetings (word board is interpreted to include commissions, committees, task forces, etc. that are set up by government, and includes the county councils) are open to the public and allow public testimony.
From a bill which would erode much of the spirit of the sunshine law, it went through multiple amendments before I could support it. One very good feature of this bill is the provision that any action of any board taken in violation of the sections of the law which deals with the need to "notice" a meeting (five-day public notice of the meeting's date, time, and place) and the posting of the agenda for the meeting may be voidable upon proof of violation. I was happy over the deletion of the word "willful" before "violation." Requiring proof of "willful" violation is a very high standard.
S.B. 1551 would have authorized the Office of Information Practices (OIP) to enforce the State's sunshine law. It would have allowed a court to void a board's actions when taken in violation of the sunshine law without having to prove willfulness. It would have allowed OIP to waive any fee to access a record if the waiver is in the public interest. It would have required the Judicial Council to select the candidates for the position of OIP director from which the Governor would make the final selection, and specified a six-year term for the director. S.B. 1551 was passed in the Senate but much to our regret, was held by the House Judiciary Committee.
S.B. 978 would have established criteria for selecting the proceedings to be cablecast on our community access stations. The committee report after the first hearing reflected our suggested criteria. It passed the Senate but was not reported out by the House Finance Committee. For some reason, similar bills in other years have also failed to be adopted. Consequently, the chairs of committees remain able to opt not to have their committee hearings televised.
S.B.865 and HB625, companion bills would have required the Director of DCCA to include in PEG Access organization contracts, 1) the requirement that public access be provided to the records of the PEG access organization in compliance with Chapter 92F; and 2) minimum requirements for public access to the meetings of the PEG organization.
"In 2004, 'Olelo filed a lawsuit against OIP in state circuit court seeking a declaration that the corporation is not owned, operated, or managed by the State under the UIPA and is not a state agency. If the corporation prevails, the public will be unable to hold the PEG access organizations accountable for the millions of dollars received by them annually in State-mandated funds." (from Section 1 of H.B.865)
The purpose of this bill was to clearly state that it is the Legislature's intent that the PEG access stations be subject to public scrutiny. H.B. 865 was passed out of the Committee on Consumer Protection and Commerce but held by the House Judiciary Committee. Its companion bill, S.B. 625 was passed by the Senate, and passed two House Committees before being held in the House Judiciary Committee.
House of Representatives Publication
We have received by mail from House Speaker Calvin Say, the inch-thick Highlights of the Twenty-Third Legislature in which "The Legislature's major accomplishments are summarized and organized according to program areas." It also includes bills passed by the House but which died in conference committee, or were rejected by the Senate. It is available for anyone's perusal so please stop by if you're interested.