For most of us, if we are asked how much money we have (perhaps by a bank or credit union that is considering lending us money), answering the question isn’t terribly difficult. Look up a bank account or two, add a brokerage account if we are fortunate enough to have one, and we go from there.
For our state government, apparently, it’s not so easy. Not only do the state accountants need to deal with general funds and the money there, but we have hundreds of special funds — little pockets of money held for different purposes. Sometimes there’s an associated bank account, sometimes not. Sometimes there is a law establishing the special fund, sometimes not (agencies can and do establish funds administratively).
In an attempt to keep track of the money, the Legislature passed a law requiring agencies to report on the special funds they have, and then they sent the state auditor to check up on the agencies to make sure they did that. According to the auditor’s reports, some of which we have covered in this space, sometimes agencies comply with the law, sometimes not. And there are no real penalties for disobeying the law — the auditor can’t put a delinquent director in the imu at the next lu‘au with a pig roast, for example.
Does it matter? Well, consider Auditor’s Report No. 20-08, which concluded: “More than $483 million in excess moneys may be available to be transferred from 57 special and revolving fund accounts to the General Fund without adversely affecting programs.” That report followed another report, No. 20-06, which “identified $2.28 billion within 257 accounts associated with departments’ special and revolving funds that either had no financial activity during the past five fiscal years (FY2015 through FY2019) or had fiscal-year-ending balances that were significantly more than necessary to support the associated programs, based on the funds’ average outflows over the past three fiscal years.”
There are idle funds holding money. Lots of money. And this is only for the funds that the auditor knows about.
If our government wants to take extreme measures such as cut back on core services and ask Joe and Jane Taxpayer to dig ever deeper into their pockets, there better not be millions or billions of dollars just laying around.
So, what we need to do is something a little more radical to make sure we know where the money is.
Let’s pass something that says that ALL funds — general, special, or revolving, statutory, administrative, or anything else — are maintained by the Department of Accounting and General Services, the folks who are supposed to cut all or most of the state’s checks now.
Agencies can spend the funds to the extent they can do so now, but DAGS gets the bank statements (Of course, if the Legislature doesn’t like the extent to which a certain agency is spending money, it can change the law).
If an agency tries to pull the wool over DAGS’ eyes, the responsible party can be punished for theft. People can go to the hoosegow for that. By the way, our law (HRS sec. 708-830) already defines theft to include “failure to make required disposition of funds.”
Once we have a single agency responsible for keeping track of all the state’s money and measures in place to ensure that other agencies aren’t stashing cash in a closet somewhere, we should be able to figure out how much money we have. Then we, as the public, can have more confidence that our government can figure out its financial condition and tell us in the public the truth about it.
Tom Yamachika is president of the Tax Foundation of Hawai‘i.