State Fiscal Briefs

August 2021

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Hawaii’s budget basics

According to the National Association of State Budget Officers (NASBO), Hawaii’s total expenditures in fiscal year (FY) 2020 were $18.1 billion, including general funds, other state funds, bonds, and federal funds. NASBO reported that total expenditures across all states in FY 2020 were $2.3 trillion, ranging from $4.7 billion in Wyoming to $337.7 billion in California.

Each state allocates spending and taxes differently among different levels of governments, and local governments often administer programs with state funds, so combined state and local government data show a more complete picture of individual benefits and contributions when comparing states.

Per the US Census Bureau, Hawaii’s combined state and local direct general expenditures were $14.9 billion in FY 2018 (the most recent year census data were available), or $10,508 per capita. (Census data exclude “business-like” activities such as utilities and transfers between state and local governments.) National per capita direct general expenditures were $9,801.

Hawaii’s largest spending areas per capita were public welfare ($2,114) and elementary and secondary education ($1,594). The Census Bureau includes most Medicaid spending in public welfare but also allocates some of it to public hospitals. Per capita spending is useful for state comparisons but is an incomplete metric because it doesn’t provide any information about a state’s demographics, policy decisions, administrative procedures, or residents’ choices.

Hawaii’s combined state and local general revenues were $17.9 billion in FY 2018, or $12,604 per capita. National per capita general revenues were $10,071. Hawaii uses all major state and local taxes. Hawaii’s largest sources of per capita revenue were general sales taxes ($2,694) and federal transfers ($2,264). Hawaii collected a relatively large amount in sales tax revenue because its tax— called a general excise tax (GET)— is levied on all business activities whereas most state general sales taxes are only levied on the final transaction and mostly on goods (not services). For example, purchasing services from a lawyer or accountant are exempt from tax in nearly all states but the GET applies to these purchases (and all other services) in Hawaii.

Hawaii’s politics

Governor David Ige, a Democrat, was elected in 2018 with 61 percent of the vote. The next gubernatorial election is in 2022.

Democrats control both the House of Representatives (47 Democrats to 4 Republicans) and Senate (24 Democrats to 1 Republican), with veto-proof majorities in both houses. Control of the governor’s mansion and each house of the legislature gives Democrats a trifecta in Hawaii. All Hawaii House seats are on the ballot in 2022 because representatives serve two-year terms. Senators serve a combination of two- and four-year terms during each decade’s legislative district apportionment cycle. This 2-4-4 term system ensures all Senate seats are up for election after new legislative district boundaries are drawn. All senators are therefore up for election in 2022.

Hawaii’s budget institutions, rules, and constraints

Hawaii uses a biennial budget. The legislature must pass a balanced budget, but it can carry a deficit over into the following year. Hawaii also limits spending growth with a formula tied to the state’s personal income growth. The rule is binding and requires a two-thirds legislative supermajority to override it. The state also imposes limits on total authorized debt and debt service incurred by the state.

(Note: Some states have informal budget institutions that constrain overall spending growth or a specific expenditure’s growth.)

Hawaii’s recent fiscal debates

  • Education advocates in Hawaii have unsuccessfully pushed for tax increases to fund greater education spending in recent years. In 2018, the legislature (SB 2922) approved a ballot initiative that, if supported by voters, would have given the state the authority to enact a state property tax surcharge to support more education spending. (The ballot initiative was required because state law allows only local governments to levy property taxes.) However, the Hawaii Supreme Court ruled the measure was invalid before the vote because it was not specific enough about the state’s new taxing authority. In 2019, a bill (SB 1474) that would have increased the state’s GET from 4 percent to 4.5 percent (and sent most of the resulting revenue to education programs) passed in the Senate but failed in the House.
  • Tourism is central to Hawaii, contributing nearly $18 billion to its economy and $2 billion to its state tax revenue. But concerns are growing that the state is missing out on tax revenue as tourists increasingly turn to online vacation rentals such as Airbnb. In fact, Airbnb estimated the state lost $64 million in tax revenue in 2018 from the company’s rentals alone (i.e., not accounting for other online booking platforms). In 2019, the legislature passed legislation (SB 1292) that would have required hosting platforms to collect both the state’s GET and its transient accommodations tax on rental transactions. Airbnb supported the legislation, but Governor Ige vetoed the bill because he wants the state to instead work with counties on regulation.
  • Hawaii enacted a state earned income tax credit (EITC) in 2017. The legislation (HB 209) set the state’s credit at 20 percent of the federal EITC. Unlike the federal credit, however, Hawaii’s EITC is nonrefundable, meaning the state’s credit cannot exceed the taxpayer’s state income tax liability. Among the 28 states that offer an EITC, only five others provide a nonrefundable credit. Hawaii’s EITC is temporary and is set to expire after tax year 2022.

Hawaii’s current budget

Hawaii enacted its FY 2020-2021 biennial budget in March 2019. Over the two-year period, the budget approved roughly $16 billion in general fund spending. Governor Ige released his FY 2020-2021 supplemental biennial budget proposal in December 2019. The supplemental budget proposal called for an additional $429 million in operating expenditures for FY 2021, bringing the general fund budget to $16.2 billion for the biennium. The supplemental proposal prioritized capital improvements and education spending.

Hawaii enacted its FY 2020-21 supplemental biennial budget in July 2020 (without the governor’s signature). However, instead of increasing spending, the enacted supplemental budget cut $357 million in unspent funds and utilized reserves to close a $1 billion projected deficit. The legislature additionally passed legislation (S.B. 75) that allocated federal CARES Act funds, including transferring $635 million to the state’s rainy-day fund.

Governor Ige released his FY 2022-23 biennial budget proposal in December 2020 and gave his State of the State address in January 2021. The governor’s proposal anticipates a revenue shortfall of $2.3 billion over the biennium and includes $15.5 billion in general-fund spending over the two-year period. That proposed spending total is below the enacted spending for the previous biennium. His budget recommends eliminating hundreds of government jobs plus furloughing thousands of employees, but the governor also said he is open to tax increases as part of the budget solution. However, the federal funds Hawaii will receive from the American Rescue Plan may allow the state to avoid deep spending cuts.

For more on Hawaii’s budget, see