Although our Legislature hasn’t opened yet, legislators are at work already. The money committees, for example, have started quizzing the various executive departments on their budget requests for the upcoming biennium (2019-2020).
According to law, specifically HRS section 37-75, the agencies are supposed to come up with a “variance report” that is supposed to list how much they were budgeted, how much was spent, and a narrative explanation for any significant difference. Variance reports are due 30 days before the start of the legislative session.
The variance is supposed to be reported not only for dollars, but also for employee count and other “effectiveness measures.” Effectiveness measures are numeric indicators of how well the agency is performing in a certain program area. The agency gets to select their own measures to report how well they are doing to the legislators and to us as taxpayers.
Let’s take a look at Honolulu International Airport from this report. We spent $158 million on this airport in FY 2017-18. Regarding measures of effectiveness?
Hmm. Kind of tough to figure out how they’re doing when there’s no data. By the way, none of the airports appear to have any actual data in their measures of effectiveness sections. If they are selecting their own measures of effectiveness, why aren’t they even measuring them? And by the way, variance reports in prior years did measure these statistics – up to 2013-14. No data was collected in the 2014-15 variance report or in any year since. The 2014-15 variance report noted, “DOT’s response dated Nov. 17, 2014, indicates the Airports Division reviewed their measures two (2) years ago and detected that many of its measures are no longer relevant and outdated. As noted by Airports, to date, the updated measures and data collection are not available.” Which basically meant that the Airports Division quit following the law at that time.
Another statistic that is high on the head-scratching factor is for Halawa Correctional Facility. We spent $28 million on that facility this year. Two of the measures of effectiveness are the number of times an inmate escapes by using violence (first degree escape) and the number of times an inmate escapes otherwise (second degree escape). The variance report claims to have no data on these statistics. Huh? Do they mean that they don’t know when people who are supposed to be locked up aren’t? Strike that – I don’t even want to know the answer to that question.
Other holes in the variance report drew excuses like, “We no longer track this because federal grants no longer require it” or “We don’t keep the data in this way any more.” In the private and nonprofit sectors, if a metric is no longer meaningful, it’s common to switch to another one that is. How long does it take for one of our Hawaii departments to switch metrics on these reports? Please don’t tell me it takes years.
For our government to operate well and to be fairly evaluated, we need good data and transparency. Let’s keep pressing, and maybe someday we will get some.
Tom Yamachika is the president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii.