Obenski column: We’re a blue state, but our taxes are all red

Hawaii is considered a “blue state.” Virtually all the politicians are Democrats, but when the legislatures and councils are in session no one’s life, liberty or property are safe.

Something strange happens, collectively they vote like Republicans. Taxes are the star issue. Every proposal to raise regressive taxes passes. Any suggestion to raise property tax dies. There are no proposals to tax such obvious excess as private jets or mega-yachts. Auto licenses are based on weight, not value (as in California). The working man’s pickup or the hotel maid’s old station wagon cost more to license than the billionaire’s Porsche or Maserati.


Our county has suffered some financial setbacks recently. Some 700 homes are no longer on the tax rolls. The land where they stood has been converted from idyllic or sentimental paradise to barren rock. Hundreds of taxpayers converted to homeless. Meanwhile, many homes have become vacation rentals, often ignoring the business taxes that should be paid.

It is easy to see how county government is stretched thin looking for more revenue. The mayor and council look enviously at all the regressive sources, GET, gas tax, and barrel tax (a redundant gas tax). TAT has of course been stolen by the state/County of Honolulu. Property taxes, which remain the lowest in the state, are off the radar. What makes property taxes untouchable? The big sugar and cattle barons have sold out. Are the hotels that powerful?

Property tax has a big political disadvantage that it comes as a big bill twice a year instead of a nickel at a time like the GET. It’s not hidden in the cost of a tankful. How does the Legislature deal with a housing shortage? They pass a new building code that makes new construction more expensive. More profit to the suppliers.

Boat mooring fees are based on length, but a boat twice as long is four times the size and probably eight times more valuable. In some other places fees are graduated for larger classes of boats or calculated by the square foot, a more realistic measure. Panama Canal charges by the ton. Airplane related fees are typically based on weight and the classification of the airport, a little more progressive, but it costs less per square foot to park a $40 million Gulfstream at Kona than a $400 Datsun.

The plantation mentality: The power of the big landowners, the progeny of the missionaries, extends to moral issues. The native people of Hawaii gambled a lot. The missionary mentality did not approve. Hawaii is one of five states without a lottery. Utah, Mississippi, and Alabama are heavily influenced by fundamentalist religion. Nevada has so much other gambling a lottery would be redundant. Even the most-subtle suggestion to legalize any form of gambling, such as putting slot machines in the international departure lounge, has been rebuffed. Hawaii residents cannot participate in out of state lotteries, unless they relocate there.

This does not stop our people from gambling, they go to the “9th Island,” Las Vegas. The money they lose, as you know they will, goes to enrich Nevada, and the shady entrepreneurs who operate the casinos. Who else benefits? The airlines, especially the one based in Hawaii. Add round trip airfare to the social expense of gaming. Well-regulated casinos here would bring in more tourists and their money. The same paternalistic attitude prevails regarding cannabis.


There are the insidious regressive ways to garner more revenue from working people. The legislative favorite today is red light enforcement cameras. The toll cameras collect will hit hardest on working people who have long commutes. The fine will be a flat dollar amount whether that represents a week’s income or a minute’s. A week’s rent or another imported cigar. Cameras are advertised as a safety issue, but there is no evidence that they enhance safety. The Senate has already embraced them and the House probably will. The public isn’t buying it.

Ken Obenski is a forensic engineer, now safety advocate in South Kona. He writes a biweekly column for West Hawaii Today. Send feedback to obenskik@gmail.com.