Pedestrian bill money mustn't be held hostage
By Rep. Marcus Oshiro
Gov. Linda Lingle has promised not to release $3 million for pedestrian safety. She would like to use the general fund and disagrees with the Legislature's position that the money should come from the highway fund. To withhold the money is foolhardy while pedestrians are losing their lives on our streets.
First, taking $3 million from the highway fund does not jeopardize the state's ability to qualify for federal matching funds. The federal dollar match is only in jeopardy if the highway fund becomes depleted, and the fund is currently operating with a comfortable cushion. By law, the highway fund is required to carry a reserve of 35 percent of its annual expenditures; currently that means about $60 million. At the end of fiscal year 2007, the highway fund is expected to have a reserve of $92 million.
In fact, the highway fund generates about $200 million a year, and it will increase its annual revenue by about $25 million, for a total of $225 million, based on legislation passed this year and approved by Gov. Lingle. The additional revenue includes about $14 million from the rental vehicle surcharge as well as the increase in the gas tax by 1 cent for a total of $7 million to $9 million annually. (The same legislation provides a significant cost savings for Hawai'i's drivers because of the exemption of the general excise tax on the purchase of ethanol-blended fuel; this results in less revenue for the general fund, not the highway fund.) This new money is not set aside for any particular project, and could be used for pedestrian safety.
Further, over the next fiscal biennium, $1.2 million of the state highway fund appropriation will have to be matched by the counties. So, if the governor releases the pedestrian safety funds, an additional $1.2 million in county funds could also be applied for pedestrian safety.
Second, using the $3 million from the highway fund does not constitute a "raid." A raid implies we are using money for a purpose that is not highway related, but clearly there is a nexus between using the highway fund and improving our roadways and crosswalks for safety purposes. There is an entire program within the Highways Division of the Department of Transportation, TRN597, called "Highway Safety" whose sole purpose is to provide a safe, efficient and accessible highway system.
Third, the governor claims that the reason our highways are in such bad shape is because Democrats have continually raided the fund. Not so. The Reason Foundation, an independent think tank, released a report stating that in 2005 Hawai'i spent the fifth highest amount of money in the country to build and maintain each mile of highway. The same report ranked Hawai'i the fifth lowest for highway safety.
If our highways are in bad shape, as the governor claims, it is not due to a lack of funding. We have a management efficiency problem and it needs to be addressed. For the past five years, under this governor's watch, the Department of Transportation has not been able to address the backlog and build projects for which highway funds are available. The administration needs to stop pointing fingers, and do a better job of getting results for taxpayer's money.
Finally, our state economy is slowing, and we know that revenues to the general fund will be significantly lower than anticipated. As the chairman of the House Finance Committee, I assure you that it would be very difficult to find $3 million in the general fund budget for pedestrian safety. If we can use the money from another appropriate source, such as the highway fund, it makes sense to do so.
Yes, $3 million is a fair amount of money, but it is only 1.3 percent of the total amount that the Department of Transportation receives each year. To hold this money hostage defies common sense. Using the highway fund will not deplete the fund, will not jeopardize federal funding, and is not a raid. This is no time for the governor to dig in her heels. Collaboration is difficult with her combativeness.
There have been 46 pedestrian deaths in Hawai'i over the past 18 months. Let's not waste any more time arguing about the source of funding. We call on the governor to release the funds now. If we can save just one life, it will be money well spent.
Rep. Marcus Oshiro, D-39th (Wahiawa), is chairman of the House Finance Committee. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.