The Hawaii State Tax Watch Doggie’s son has come home from school, and today he has a few more questions than usual.
Q. Dad! What’s a general ledger?
A. Grrr…I’m trying to write an article here. Why don’t you ask Mom?
Q. She just chased me out of the kitchen.
A. Oh? Okay then. Hmm…lots of businesses and organizations keep track of their finances using an accounting system. The system keeps track of money that is received or paid and breaks it up into categories.
For example, if your school used $20 in cash to buy pencils for your classroom, the system would record on the general ledger a “debit” to classroom supplies for $20 and a “credit” to cash of $20.
Q. Why do you count the $20 twice?
A. Once is to keep track of how much money you have, and the other is to keep track of what happened to it. The debits and credits must always total the same number, otherwise you’ve lost track of either the money or what it was used for.
Q. So the general ledger is where all the money gets recorded?
A. Right. Why the sudden interest in accounting?
Q. My school told me there’s an organization called the Education Institute of Hawaii that wants to see the general ledger for the whole Department of Education.
A. Well, sure. General ledgers are government records and should be accessible to the public.
Q. But my teacher says that what she gets paid is private information and the government shouldn’t be giving it out.
A. Individual salaries are private information. But most big employers pay their employees on a separate system, and only totals get put on the general ledger. So, releasing the general ledger isn’t supposed to expose private information.
Q. Is that what our school does?
A. I don’t know. But even if there is some private information in the general ledger, there should be a way to take that information out so the public can examine the rest of the ledger.
Q. So my teacher says the Education Institute is going to sue to get the information. She says it’s dumb because all the financial information is supposed to go into a system that will be public next year anyway.
A. Well, just because information is “supposed” to be released in some form at some point in the future is no excuse for refusing to turn it over now to a member of the public who is requesting it.
Q. So is my school going to go to court? Maybe they’ll be next to the Kealoha trial.
A. We’ll see…maybe they’ll go to court, but it’s a different court from the Kealoha trial so it’ll be in a different building at least.
Mom: Dinner’s ready!
A. Whew! Saved by the bell!
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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.