The point of assigning money collected to a special fund is to see that it’s spent on the prescribed purpose. That’s why the funding mechanism that supports the Enhanced 911 system — the wireless network that delivers emergency cellular calls to first responders more reliably — needs a second look.
Subscribers to cellular phone service pay as part of their monthly billing a 66-cent fee that feeds the e911 Fund, which is overseen by a state board. Projects authorized by the board maintain and improve the e911 system, which pinpoints the location of a cell phone call by using global positioning system technology.
Here’s the problem, as outlined by Star-Advertiser writer Dan Nakaso: The fund was so flush that last year the Legislature skimmed $16 million from it to help close the budget deficit. Even so, according to the board’s recent minutes, the fund remains healthy enough that the board was able to budget up to its $9 million spending cap on projects from its top two priority tiers.
This raises the question: Why is the consumer continually billed at a rate that so clearly exceeds the needs of the fund? Why hasn’t the Legislature, which by law sets the fee, lowered the amount tacked on to subscribers’ bills?
Some lawmakers have proposed doing just that but seemingly have run into the brick wall of governmental inertia. One iteration of House Bill 1014, carried over to the 2010 session where it finally died, would have knocked 20 cents off the monthly fee, among other changes.
This bill should be resurrected in some form to give subscribers back some of their money. There’s no reason why subscribers to private cell services should be paying into a fund that produces enough of an excess that it can be siphoned off for uses that, if anything, should be financed by the broader taxpayer base.
Some informed observers are not holding their breath. Jim Schuler, a spokesman for the industry group CTIA, said Hawaii isn’t alone in raiding its overly fat fund, adding that legislatures rarely reduce a fee, once enacted.
And Glenn Roach, the private contractor providing staff support to the Hawaii board, said the plan next session is to ask that the spending cap be lifted so that the fund can be spent down on lower-priority projects.
But it would be a fairer policy to give back subscribers some of their money and schedule the lower tier of upgrades and maintenance projects over the longer term, especially since some of their money already has been diverted for purposes that have nothing to do with the stated purpose.
In fact, state Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, who chaired the Senate Ways and Means Committee, said she’s starting to think many of the state’s special funds should be reviewed. Sometimes nonessential projects get budgeted merely to spend down the money in these funds, which is not helpful to the state’s goal of running a tight ship.
She’s right. Having stray pots of petty cash may give lawmakers a budget-balancing option more palatable than tax increases, but it’s not sound fiscal policy.