Danny De Gracia: How To Make Or Break A Visitor Fee In Hawaii - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

Spend it on projects and improvements, not more staffers or administrative costs.

When I was in high school during the early 1990s, most of my classmates came from lower-income, blue collar, working-class families or military families who just wanted a big break in life.

There was a running fantasy many of us would engage in whenever we had free time together, where we would boast about the kinds of jobs we would get after graduation and how we would spend the money we made.

You’ve probably engaged in the same career thought experiment at some point. Someone says they’ll join the military and use their G.I. bill to be the first to go to college. Another person describes how they’ll start a business and get so rich they’ll buy a big house with a garage full of sports cars. Maybe one or two might even dream of being a movie star and talk of how they’ll live a jet set lifestyle surrounded by adoring fans.

I had one friend, however, who went far above and beyond the rest of us. He had stacks of Mead-brand spiral, college-ruled notebooks that he would fill with shopping lists of all the things he wanted to buy in exacting detail. When we’d be sitting in class together, instead of paying attention to the lecture, he’d be penning shopping lists of all the things he wanted, sometimes even going so far as to draw illustrations of how they would look or what he would do with them.

At one point my friend boasted to us that he would buy off the Seychelles government – no, really – to furnish him with a private island, procure hordes of surplus weapons from former Soviet republics to create a mercenary army, and then get married to a ’90s supermodel in a wedding that would feature a live performance by the Guns N’ Roses band. 

Unfortunately for my friend, none of this ever manifested at all and he would later spend most of his life homeless or in jail. But craziness aside, we loved that guy so much and delighted in spending time with him, because he could tell the most entertaining stories about all the things he planned to do or intended to buy.

Moral Hazard

I mention this story because whenever I hear Hawaii Gov. Josh Green or others talking about visitor fees and all the things we could buy with them, it seriously reminds me of the wild shopping lists my high school buddy used to create.

Now, in all deference to Gov. Green, I do think the idea of visitor fees has merit. Post-agricultural Hawaii is a tourist state, and it makes sense that some kind of fee structure for infrastructure upkeep, recapitalization and modernization needs to exist to avoid being overwhelmed by tourist wear and tear. 

Visitor impact fees could create moral hazards where those who benefit from fees may not want to limit tourism in a crisis because of the money it brings. (Danny de Gracia/Civil Beat/2023)

The problem however occurs when we start using visitor fees to go on government spending binges. If the whole point of a visitor fee is to reduce the impact caused by visitors, you don’t want to grow government spending so big that in the future, Hawaii is then caught in a loop where we have to bring increasingly more tourists just to keep the visitor fees coming in to pay for all the things we’re funding with the visitor fee. 

If our intent is to have better managed, responsible tourism, having a visitor fee and then creating a shopping list of things we want to buy above and beyond the basics puts us at contretemps with reducing tourist impact. 

What happens if a future governor of Hawaii urgently needs to throttle back excessive visitors due to a new pandemic or other crisis? Will state partner nonprofits subsidized by visitor fees and cultural or environmental workers whose salaries come from these fees launch rancorous protests and disrupt any efforts to stop tourism from coming in, lest they be starved of money?

That’s called “moral hazard,” where a conflict of interest exists that prevents us from doing the right thing because we fear the loss of money more than any perceived loss that occurs from not doing what is best for all of us. And that is why, if we are to ever have visitor fees, they must be narrowly applied, fund a very specific goal with measurable objectives, and then repeal itself automatically after a certain number of years have passed.

If we implement visitor fees, it should be for not more than six years, with a sunset clause that states that unless reauthorized by a two-thirds majority vote of the Legislature, the fee will terminate and all funds will then lapse into the general fund. 

If we are to ever have visitor fees, they must be narrowly applied, fund a very specific goal with measurable objectives.

The money should not go to any nonprofits – that’s just asking for corruption to occur – but should be spent only by state or county government agencies for the purposes of building or maintaining public infrastructure used by tourists, repairing environmental damage, and performing safety or cultural education for visitors. 

You do something like fix a shoreline and harden it against erosion with a visitor fee. You don’t do something like pay a nonprofit to hire someone for $130,000/year just to liaise with the government and virtue signal all day.

Last of all, there needs to be a stipulation that no procurement exemptions of any sort may be applied to any spending done with visitor fee revenues. The last thing we need is for private contractors or political friends of the government milking the visitor fee cash cow and not providing tangible benefits to the people of Hawaii. 

Can visitor fees work? Yeah. But I think the more important question we should be asking is, will the people being funded by visitor fees work? That’s what we need to be concerned about if we are to ever implement them.

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About the Author

Danny de Gracia

Danny de Gracia is a resident of Waipahu, a political scientist and an ordained minister. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views. You can reach him by email at dgracia@civilbeat.org or follow him on Twitter at @ddg2cb.

Latest Comments (0)

The issue in this article is not how, or who to tax, the state of Hawaii does that mercilessly, inventing new taxes every year and persisting, even though the people have spoken, to retain tax like GE on food and medicine. The point here is the size of government. Government so big we have a $19B state budget over the next 2 years. We have a population of 1.4M people, that's nearly $13,600 per head. It's a little simplistic because much of the state's income is derived from the GE tax, much of which is paid by visitors, but do you feel that you get $6,800/year in state services? Hard to really tell, but there are over 121K government workers in Hawaii, over 21% of the workforce and the 5th highest percentage in the US. Meanwhile our city and state lacks proper maintenance, everything is pretty much in dire need of repairs and yet the bill for wages and benefits escalates out of control along with the need to tax. We need to change the way government works, for the people, instead of in spite of. Do more with less, use technology to enhance productivity and shrink the cost of labor. Government here simply exists to do business with itself and forcing many to flee.

wailani1961 · 1 week ago

Call it a fee, or a tax, or admission or whatever you like, but in the USA it’s pure discrimination across state borders and probably illegal. And legally define ‘tourist’. If I’m a researcher, a student, a desperately needed traveling nurse, a former resident, an interviewee, a refugee, an organ transplant courier, or dozens of other reasons a person gets on a plane or boat, then who decides? The opportunities for corruption and bribe demands only increases.Other states will retaliate too, given the immature majorities in many of them. Can you see it now? Signs in airports demanding only Hawaiian passengers pay a tourist fee to Nevada, WA, OR or CA? You cool with that?Hawaiians that flee Hawai’i just make the housing shortages on the mainland worse. That definitely has environmental effects too. So Danny would be happy to pay those fees when he travels? Or he is just more special?Where’s it going to stop?Hawaii needs to roll back all the corruption and environmental degradation they allow in their own back yard and quit blaming visitors who literally pay most of their bills. Visitors aren’t dumping appliances, cars and sewage.

Mauna2Moana · 2 weeks ago

Even if there are provisions in the bill that the fee can only be used for certain projects that won't stop money from being funneled elsewhere. They will simply reduce any budgets that receive the money collected from the fees and move that money to something else.

nks · 2 weeks ago

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