The legislature and the public has been playing a game of “whack a mole” for a long, long time, effectively dodging the question and responsibility of properly funding Hawaii’s public education system. They say no to increasing the General Excise Tax (GET), they say no to raising tourist taxes (except for rail of course), they say no to taxing sugar drinks, and they say no to legalizing and taxing cannabis. In the past they have said no to taxing retirement income and casino gambling and/or a lottery (all bad ideas IMHO) have never gotten off the ground.
Whack the mole, pass the buck, and kick the can down the road is how our state has dealt with funding public education, and we all should be a little ashamed of ourselves for letting that happen.
Hawaii teachers are the lowest paid in the country, when the cost of living in Hawaii is factored in. To attract and retain qualified teachers they must be paid properly, and currently that is not the case. According to the Hawaii State Teachers Association (HSTA) each year over 1,000 teacher positions remain vacant, and positions are often filled by uncertified and unqualified long-term substitutes. In addition to low teacher pay, small class sizes which have been proven to increase student learning also require a public investment. The list of funding needs for public education is long, and the neglect by the legislature to adequately funding those needs extends even longer.
Somebody has to pay for underfunding our public education system. Right now the teachers and students are effectively paying this cost through low wages and crowded classrooms, and they have been for years.
But the public will soon be given a chance to reverse the neglectful trend.
On November 6, 2018, Hawaii voters will be asked, “Shall the legislature be authorized to establish, as provided by law, a surcharge on investment real property to be used to support public education?”
My vote will be a strong yes.
If approved by the voters this change to the Hawaii Constitution will allow the State legislature to then pass legislation essentially adding an “education tax or surcharge” on investment real estate. Investment real estate is generally defined as real estate that is not owner occupied. The enabling legislation, will clarify the definition and establish which properties will be subject to the new surcharge/tax and how much that tax will be.
The legislative intent as expressed in the public record, is to levy the surcharge on luxury homes and condominiums that are used as second homes, vacation rentals and or simply sit vacant as investment properties.
As someone who has served at both the county and the state level, I know how difficult politically it is to raise taxes. I also know that there are numerous exemptions and other mechanisms that can and will be put into place to protect local families and the local rental market. The political pressure on the legislature to do so will be tremendous, of that you can be sure.
This conversation has been happening now for many years. There is no right way to raise taxes that pleases everyone, so the result is nothing happens.
Few if any legislators nor members of the public who are familiar with the issue will say that Hawaii’s teachers are paid adequately. Most will agree also that small class size is important and that our students deserve much more than they are getting. These same individuals will agree that to achieve these goals requires an additional investment in our public education system.
But at this point is where the conversation historically collapses. No one it seems wants to pay for it. Instead, we force our teachers to subsidize our education system by working for substandard wages, and our students and community as a whole pays the societal costs.
Any tax increase will gore someone’s ox, and thus all increases are always opposed (except for rail).
For those whose response is “Someone else should pay,” I ask “Who?”
The issue is complex and yet it is not. To attract and retain qualified teachers they must be paid properly, and currently that is not the case. Small class sizes have been proven to increase student learning and this also costs money. No amount of streamlining or decentralization or other rearranging of the deck chairs will achieve these objectives.
This is a crazy cycle of neglect, with real consequences and it must stop.
The constitutional amendment that will be on the ballot this coming November, allows the public to choose to increase the funding for public education via a surcharge on investment properties, or the public can choose to do nothing and just keep whacking the mole.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and is the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.