LIHUE — In November’s general election, voters will consider a constitutional amendment that would give the Legislature the authority to establish a surcharge on investment real property to support public education.
“It’s an important measure,” said Sarah Tochiki, who teaches band at Chiefess Kamkahelei Middle School. “It’s a funding source that won’t affect the general population, but the ones who could afford to contribute more.”
The intent that they got from the Legislature, she said, is it’s only for investment properties that are over $1 million.
“There’s a lot of misconception in the media that it’s going to raise the cost of living in the state, but generally, people don’t live in million dollar homes,” she said.
They want people who don’t live in the state, but are making money off of Hawaii’s land with vacation rentals,to pay a little bit more so students can have technology in the classrooms, so they won’t have to share books, so they can have air conditioning, Tochiki said.
“We want to give the students the education they need in order to be able to afford those homes in the future,” she said.
A “yes” vote aims to tax second homes over $1 million, said Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teacher’s Association.
“We estimate that one third of all of Hawaii students go to school on a daily basis and have at least one teacher that is under-qualified,” he said.
The amendment has drawn opponents who say the bill will raise the cost of living, hurt businesses, and its vagueness doesn’t guarantee the money will actually be used for education.
The Affordable Hawaii Coalition says the state already spends close to $3 billion on public education, but its “impossible to know how much money is reaching the school,” due to lack of fiscal accountability.
Rosenlee said it’s an opportunity to fund education in Hawaii.
“There’s no one silver bullet that’s going to solve the problem, but we’re not going to solve the problem unless we fund the schools,” Rosenlee said.
Rep. Jimmy Tokioka, who voted for the bill with reservations, said he supports teachers.
He continued: “The reason I voted with reservations is because I did not like the language. I thought it needed to be clearer about what the amendment was actually going to do.”
The Legislature, he said, needs to look into how they pay and retain teachers.
“I know they have tried different ways to get a secure source of funding, but I would have rather looked at the state’s taxing abilities to help pay for our teachers,” he said.
Rep. Dee Morikawa said if the amendment is passed, she will support only certain investment properties over a certain threshold, because the most equitable funding for education is the General Excise tax.
In many other states, property taxes are used for education, but in Hawaii, the counties are not able to fund education and need the state’s help, she said in a written statement to TGI.
“I do not believe the DOE needs a larger budget, it’s already 22 percent, the largest of the general fund’s budget,” she said.
If this amendment is passed, it doesn’t mean their budget will get any bigger because they may get less from the general funds, Morikawa said.
“Many feel this is great for education, but we must be very careful with this policy and be wary of any unintended consequences it may generate,” she said.
Rep. Nadine Nakamura said she believes the measure is deliberately vague to get a pulse from the citizenry, to see if there is support for this approach.
“I voted in support of this bill with reservations. I support the bill’s intent to address low teacher pay when adjusted to the cost of living, the need to address the shortage of qualified teachers in our classrooms and special needs education,” she said.
The state needs to do more in the area of early childhood education, she said.
“I voted with reservations because the real property tax is the primary source of revenue for counties. I believe that if we are committed to public education and if we have a clear plan from the Department of Education addressing these needs that is adopted by the board of education, we should consider increasing the General Excise Tax, a statewide tax,” she said.
Nakamura said she hasn’t seen a written plan from the DOE that will clarify how funds generated by any new tax would be put to use and how outcomes will be measured.
“This type of accountability is what I’m looking for and I believe what the public needs to be assured that new revenues are being put to the best use possible,” she said.
If the amendment is passed, Tokioka said he’s concerned that it will impact local families in long-term rentals. He wants more transparency and more details in the amendment, but added he wants to be clear, he supports teachers.
He continued: “What I would propose is we need to be specific as to where the money is going to go and be fair on how we fund the teachers and not usurp the counties. The responsibility would be on the Legislature to come up with the funding.”