When it comes to the state's unfunded government employee health and pension benefits liability (of which Maui County owes a portion), Hawaii is not the only state to have such a massive problem. However, few seem to realize that this combined liability is estimated to be roughly $21 billion and growing, and it has yet to receive the attention it needs to address this crisis.
For the last two legislative sessions, we have asked all members of the Hawaii Legislature, not just our Maui senators and representatives, to address this problem and pare back spending to what our state can afford.
While some measures were taken to reduce the liability going forward, which is a step in the right direction, it was a baby step in light of the massive effort needed. In the business world, a problem of this magnitude would be priority one and not dealing with it would most certainly be an offense where people would be fired.
So why are we not sounding the sirens to call attention to this disaster and get our best and brightest on it? The answer may be that most do not understand it. In fact, a key challenge seems to be that people are unclear about exactly how high the liability is. They do not know that the debt equates to more than $25,000 for every man, woman, and child in Hawaii today.
While there are a variety of reasons that the number changes and therefore getting an exact amount is difficult, the fact that the number is over $21 billion now is not going to get better without massive reform - i.e. raising money or reducing costs to pay it down.
Therefore, we asked every candidate running for state and county office that participated in our endorsement process how much is owed (for the respective office level they are running for - state or county - and how they planned to address it.
Those who shared the best information were South Maui Rep. George Fontaine on the state level and Council Member Mike White on the county level. While others had some idea of the amount, some in office and many running for office grossly underestimated the amounts. On a county level, we heard amounts of between $200 million and $400 million, understanding the real number to be closer to $400 million. We also heard how the Maui County Council has set aside money over several years totaling $90 million toward this debt.
While our County Council has been working to set money aside and is ahead of many other counties, current council members noted that they are holding the $90 million back and not paying the state because the state does not have a system to attribute Maui County's payment toward the amount Maui County specifically owes. They do not want the money to disappear or go toward another county's bill, so it sits (albeit earning interest) waiting for the day when the state will be ready to appropriately account for the payment.
To business people, this is ludicrous. In the private sector, any such accounting problems would be promptly fixed so that the payment could be realized the debt brought down. The thought of the state allowing the county to withhold a $90 million payment is unfathomable.
It is time we call on our elected officials to make this priority one to have the state clearly tell each county how much they owe and be ready to accept and account for each county's payment. To not address this problem unfairly burdens all of the people of Hawaii now and for many generations to come.
You have a choice this election. Please vote for those who recognize that this is an emergency and will make it a top priority.
* Pamela Tumpap is president of the Maui Chamber of Commerce.