Ding Dong, the Green Fee is Dead
by Tom Yamachika, President, Tax Foundation Hawaii
Environmentalists are bemoaning the apparent demise of the “Visitor Green Fee,” a $50 charge that would need to be paid by whoever, as a nonresident, wants to visit parks, beaches, scenic sites, and other places of natural beauty. Most of the population, they say, supports such a charge if it is going to be used to support those parks, beaches, and other scenic sites. (Especially if tourists, namely folks other than the population asked, are going to pay that charge.)
The bill containing the fee proposal, Senate Bill 304, did not survive the conference committee process. Interestingly, the bill passed third reading in the House on April 6, went over to the Senate from which it started, and the Senate disagreed to the House amendments on April 11. It wasn’t until April 19 that Senate conferees were appointed, and it took an additional week, until April 26, that the House appointed conferees. Those two weeks of dithering over conferees apparently took their toll, because the deadline for conference reports was a mere two days later, April 28. The conferees hurriedly noticed a conference committee meeting for the morning of April 28, and then noticed a reconvening of the meeting on April 28th at 5 PM. Under that kind of time pressure it would be tough to come up with a conference agreement that both sides would be happy with. Not surprisingly, they didn’t. Proponents of the bill get to try again next year.
Why did the bill go down in flames if, as its proponents have said, everyone supported it? As with many proposals, the devil was in the details. Unlike non-U.S. locales like Palau and the Galapagos Islands that can and do impose entry or exit fees at the airport, the power of our state to slap fees on people is limited by the U.S. Constitution, and we can’t simply do the same thing that those other countries are doing. Lawmakers came up with some elaborate constructs to get around this issue – the $50 will be charged for an “annual license” to see our natural attractions, for example –but how would it ever be enforced? Would state scuba divers suddenly surface beside unsuspecting swimmers, demand to see their $50 payment or a driver’s license, and haul them off to the hoosegow when they can produce neither on the spot? Or would uniformed officers on horseback gallop up to a tent of beachside partygoers and line them up, all with smartphones in hand, to see who paid their fifty bucks and got the “I’m licensed, are you?” QR code?
And, if the real problem is that not enough money is being spent to maintain our land and natural resources, isn’t the solution at the budgeting table whether or not there is a “dedicated” or “targeted” revenue stream that this bill is supposed to provide? After all, even if lawmakers say that green fee revenue can only be used for natural resource conservation, there is nothing to stop those at the budgeting table from “repurposing” general fund money that otherwise would have gone to conservation.
For that matter, there is nothing to make the agencies that are given our precious tax dollars spend the money as opposed to letting it pile up unused (compare, for example, what happens with TANF funding, as we recently reported).
Thus, at the end of the day, even if the bill passed and we started milking our tourists even more, would we really be able to pull down the revenue that this bill promises? And how do we know whether that revenue, even if it materializes, will in fact support needed conservation efforts as opposed to either gathering dust in a bank somewhere or being squandered on something entirely unrelated?
Green fee supporters and lawmakers, you certainly can try again next year. But I suggest that you give some thought to the issues we are discussing here to make sure that your hard-earned funding goes where it is supposed to.