Chances are if you are a senior and a member of AARP, you got a call this week from Barbara Kim Stanton, its state director, urging you to fight Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s plan to tax state pensions.
In an effective demonstration of grassroots, high-tech democracy, the AARP’s "robo" call asks members to lobby their state representative.
"Just enter your zip code and we will automatically connect you to your representative’s office," Kim Stanton says in her call.
She reports that on the first day, 60 seniors punched in their zip codes and left messages.
The AARP is becoming an effective lobbying force at the Legislature, thanks largely to Abercrombie directly running a tax raid against them. The pension tax, Kim Stanton says, will directly hurt her members’ pensions.
"If you are an incumbent, next year you better have a good explantation why you are doing this money grab," Kim Stanton says.
The current version of the bill taxes pensions only for those with individual adjusted gross incomes above $100,000, but Kim Stanton says "a foot in the door is a foot in the door," and there is no assurance that the state won’t come back for more.
Abercrombie stumbled with his tax plan, announced in the middle of his State of the State speech. He first said that he wanted to tax the pensions of all Hawaii taxpayers with an adjusted gross income of $37,500 and take away the state payments that paid for state workers getting Medicaid Part B, in order to partly balance a budget that is now more than $1.3 billion in the red.
Later he tried to argue that wasn’t what he meant, but his administration’s bill clearly had a floor of $37,500.
"Seniors have made life decisions based on their pension and the governor threw their plans away," Kim Stanton said.
Other AARP members, like Robert Koike, the state’s former tax research and planning officer, said the tax bill changed his mind about Abercrombie.
"He has become unbelievable in his statements and he is untrustworthy," Koike said.
The bill has lots of problems, not the least of which is that it may violate the state Constitution. Interim Attorney General David Louie in February wrote to lawmakers telling them that Abercrombie’s proposals could be challenged, because court rulings have said that benefits to retirees are accrued benefits that cannot be diminished under the state Constitution.
This week Abercrombie wrote to legislators, telling them that his AG was merely commenting on the bills and his thinking was "common place observations that those bills like virtually any bill passed by the Legislature will be subject to legal challenge whether or not such a challenge is well-founded."
Legislators were astonished that Abercrombie would attempt to negate the opinion of his own AG.
"We think the current bill is both unfair and unconstitutional," said Kim Stanton, noting that her surveys show that 98 percent of Hawaii’s 150,000 AARP members say they are voters.
Raising taxes is always tough, says veteran Maui Democrat Rep. Joe Souki. He says if the Legislature goes along with Abercrombie, it will hurt Democrats next year "but it won’t be fatal."
Instead, Souki says, the state should have just raised the general excise tax and not bothered with many smaller tax increases. The governor’s office, however, has opposed the GET increase and remains steadfast, urging lawmakers to either tax seniors or figure out a better way to get the money.
For Democrats, looking at a tough campaign in 2012 when all House and all Senate members will be running in districts redrawn by redistricting, the question to ask is: "How lucky do you feel?"
Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays, Tuesdays and Fridays. Reach him at email@example.com.