It’s hard to imagine an area where government transparency is more essential than when it comes to accurately, impartially assessing the cost to taxpayers of proposed legislation.

A Hawaii court recently struck a blow for that transparency when it upheld the state Office of Information Practices, which had ruled that the Department of Taxation has no right to withhold its underlying assumptions and methodologies when it estimates how much a bill would potentially cost the public.

The department, which typically provides its estimates in testimony regarding legislation, had argued that if it had to be more forthcoming about how it did its calculations, it would be more difficult to do such work in a nonpolitical, impartial manner.

Which brings us to a bigger problem: The department is part of the executive branch and sometimes goes beyond calculating costs to also advocate for the legislative initiatives of the governor. So even though it will now have to share more information with the public, it isn’t nonpartisan.

House Chambers Legislature opening 2019.
The Hawaii Legislature needs to make good on a bill it passed in 1990 to obtain nonpartisan information about the fiscal impacts of proposed legislation. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2019

The Legislature seemingly fixed this problem way back in 1990 when it passed a bill to establish an office of the legislative analyst to operate independently of the executive branch.

Almost three decades later, the office still doesn’t exist.

It’s time for that to change.

For far too long we’ve relied on the executive branch, lobbyists or hard-pressed, mostly seasonal legislative staffers to provide the details of what proposals are going to cost.

Hawaii is an outlier when it comes to systematically producing fiscal notes about proposed legislation. It was one of only two states, California being the other, that didn’t have a statutory or legislative rule relating to fiscal notes, according to a 2015 report by the national Center on Budget Policy and Priorities.

The report was cited in one of the court documents supporting Ray Kamikawa’s legal battle for release of the Department of Taxation information.

“Legislators need fiscal notes to decide on a bill’s merits, to assess its affordability, and to plan for the future,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. “Fiscal notes also enable other interested parties to weigh in, in a more informed manner, on the legislative process. And they allow the media to understand and report accurately on pending legislation’s importance.”

Thirty-eight states required the notes for practically all legislation with a financial impact, and 45 states published the notes on the internet, the 2015 report said.

And 33 states had nonpartisan legislative fiscal offices to prepare the fiscal notes, the report found. That’s what Hawaii would have as well if legislators would have followed through with funding for the office that was authorized by the 1990 law, which stated in part:

In Hawaii, the legislature relies on the economic and fiscal analyses of the executive branch and private sector. The legislature believes that this dependency creates an inherent conflict of interest that precludes the legislature from operating independently.

Well-stated, which makes it that much more infuriating that the Legislature passed the bill and then ignored it. That’s never a good policy.

Give us a nonpartisan legislative fiscal office, and establish from the start that its efforts will be completely transparent. Public officials and taxpayers always deserve to know not only how much proposed legislation will cost, but how that estimate was arrived at.

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