TAXWatch: Blankety Blank

The story you are about to read is true.  The names have not been changed to protect the innocent.  This is the city:  Honolulu, Hawaii.  I live here.  I’m a doggie.  The suspect is Blankety Blank.

No, that isn’t a cuss word.  It’s just the facts, ma’am. 

Blankety Blank is House Bill 1190.  Its purpose, should you decide to accept it, is “to amend state income tax rates and provide tax relief for taxpayers whose income places them at or below the poverty level.”

But here’s what the bill actually says (for married filing jointly, with other filing statuses having similar language):

In the case of any taxable year beginning after December 31, 2018:

If the taxable income is:               The tax shall be:

Over $6,600 but not over $9,600         ___% of excess over $6,600

Over $9,600 but not over $28,800        $___ plus ___% of excess over $9,600

Over $28,800 but not over $38,400       $___ plus ___% of excess over $28,800

Over $38,400 but not over $48,000       $___ plus ___% of excess over $38,400

Over $48,000 but not over $72,000       $___ plus ___% of excess over $48,000

The list goes on, but I’m sure you get the idea.  Blanks, blanks, and more blanks.

We don’t know if it’s a tax cut, a tax hike, or something in between.  Nevertheless, the bill has oodles of supporters, including the LGBT Caucus of the Democratic Party of Hawaii, Rainbow Family 808, Americans for Democratic Action Hawaii, Hawaiian Community Assets, Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice, League of Women Voters of Hawaii, Oahu County Democrats, and numerous individuals.  We wonder if all those supporters were aware that they were supporting Blankety Blank.  Maybe they believed the statements about the bill’s intent, or maybe they just didn’t care about what was in the blanks.

Blankety Blank passed the House on March 5th with no one voting “No” and no one voting “Aye with reservations.”

The Senate Ways and Means Committee amended it slightly (but didn’t fill in any of the blanks) and passed it out with no dissent on March 29.  At this writing, it was awaiting third reading in the Senate, after which it will go to a conference committee.

The conference committee conducts its deliberations behind the scenes, and only schedules public meetings when it comes time to vote on the conference draft.  The conference draft, if one is produced, will have the real numbers in it.  Once that draft is released to the public, we will finally know whether we are looking at a tax hike, a tax cut, or something revenue neutral.

The Hawaii Constitution states:  “No bill shall become law unless it shall pass three readings in each house on separate days.”  The Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of 1950 said that those readings provide “the opportunity for full debate in the open before committees and in each House, during the course of which the purposes of the measures, and their meaning, scope, and probable effect, and the validity of the alleged facts and arguments given in their support can be fully examined, and if false or unsound, can be exposed, beforeany action of consequence is taken thereon.”

So how do you discuss a Blankety Blank?  Can you really debate the measure’s purpose, meaning, scope, or probable effect without knowing whether you are talking about a tax hike or a tax cut? 

This is a true story.  The end of the story has not yet been written.  We too will be following House Bill 1190 and will bark like crazy if something goes awry.  Ours is a tough job but someone has to do it.  The name’s Watch Doggie.

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Tom Yamachika is the President of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, a private, nonprofit educational organization dedicated to informing the taxpaying public about the finances of our state and local governments in Hawaii. Tom is also a tax attorney in solo practice and has been since early 2013. Prior to 2013, he was with the accounting firm Accuity LLP, which was formed in 2006 from the Honolulu office of Coopers & Lybrand (which later became PricewaterhouseCoopers). Before that, he served as an Administrative Rules Specialist in the State of Hawaii Department of Taxation from 1994 to 1996, where he drafted rules, interpretive releases, and legislation on several different state taxes. Prior to that, he practiced litigation and tax law with Cades Schutte Fleming & Wright in Honolulu.