LIHUE — The Hawaii Supreme Court on Friday invalidated a ballot question asking voters if they want to amend the Hawaii Constitution to allow the state to tax property in support of public education.
The petitioners challenging the ballot question argued it was in violation of Hawaii laws that state the language and meaning of a constitutional amendment shall be clear and neither misleading nor deceptive.
The ruling states the ballot question as written does not comply with the requirements of the law.
Mark Perriello, president of the Kauai Chamber of Commerce, said the ruling is a major victory for those who opposed the amendment.
The invalidation is also a victory for the counties, he said.
“They would have seen their ability to solely regulate property taxes suddenly meddled with by the state,” he said. “The ruling reaffirmed what those of us opposing the amendment were saying all along, that the amendment was too vague in the types of properties that can be taxed and on how the money could be spent.”
The question was, “Shall the Legislature be authorized to establish as provided by law, a surcharge on investment real property to be used to support education?”
Those who opposed the measure feared that it could impact local families and businesses, but those who supported it felt it was necessary because they said Hawaii’s schools are underfunded.
Sarah Tochiki, a band teacher at Chiefess Kamakaheli Middle School, said they were disappointed with the ruling, but they’re still feeling optimistic.
“We tried really hard, we had a lot of good feedback from parents and it was really a grassroots effort to get our message across and a different angle to get funding from our schools,” she said.
They’re going to continue to push forward to do what’s best for keiki, she said.
“We’ll find another angle and find another funding source and really do what’s right to get our schools fully funded. We’re charged,” she said. “This isn’t going to kill the flame.”
Kauai County Council Chair Mel Rapozo said he is glad the Supreme Court ruled to invalidate the amendment.
“I think that was the right decision. I watched the oral arguments yesterday, (Thursday), live and it was clear that the justices were concerned about the vagueness of the language and in reality it was a second tax on real property the state would have to implement,” he said.
The decision saves counties potential consequences, Rapozo said.
“The state was trying to cross that line and touch revenue that are exclusive to counties. I’m glad the decision came out and we can put this behind us and move on,” he said.
Councilmember Derek Kawakami said it is unfortunate that teachers and children were put between the debate of means of funding for education and taking away the counties’ primary source of revenue generation.
“As the husband, son and son-in-law of teachers, I know firsthand how dedicated and hardworking they are. The state and counties should refocus our energy toward collaborating together to achieve the intent of this constitutional amendment which was to fund education,” Kawakami said.
Rep. Nadine Nakamura said it’s disappointing the voters won’t have the opportunity to state a preference on whether to use real property taxes on investment property to fund public education.
Rep. Jimmy Tokioka said he voted for the bill because he supports teachers, but with reservation.
“The language was terrible. It did not spell out what the text was going to be on and for. The main thing, as a former council member, I thought we were way out of our purview to put a property tax which has always been the counties kuleana,” he said.
Though he supports teachers, the amendment is not something he thought was going to be fair to the voters if it appeared on the ballot, Tokioka said.
Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. said the county is pleased that the Supreme Court recognized the ballot question was vague and misleading.
“We all agree on the need to improve our DOE schools for our students and families statewide,” he said. “This case has brought well-deserved attention to this issue and we look forward to working together with our state partners to find viable solutions.”
Gov. David Ige said despite the ruling, he is committed to supporting teachers.
“The Court’s ruling on the Legislature’s amendment means we must keep searching for a way to support the dedicated teachers and staff who make a difference every day in the classrooms around the state,” he said.
Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, said they were disappointed with the ruling. He said it has been a multi-year fight to fund our schools and get the constitutional amendment proposal on the ballot.
“While we are sad about the ruling, there is still an urgent need that students have qualified teachers and sufficient school funding to provide our keiki with the learning environment they deserve,” he said in a press release. “The fight for our schools does not end with the Supreme Court ruling; all of Hawaii must ask that our elected leaders work to ensure that our schools are properly funded.”
In a press release, House of Representative Speaker Scott Saiki expressed disappointment in the Supreme Court’s ruling.
“It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court is not allowing the public to vote on this question after the Legislature vetted it over the past two years,” he said.
Rapozo said what needs to be done is a performance audit on the DOE to identify inefficiencies, fix them, and then to figure out what revenue is needed.
“Then the state needs to generate that revenue, but not (from) the taxes which is the real property tax. I believe they crossed the line and reached across and tried to reach the counties. They have their own revenue sources they need to tap into rather than the counties processes,” he said.
Kawakami said the state needs to begin to take a serious look at where deficiencies can be found within the DOE and identify their strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats.
“The Department of Education should also utilize a very powerful tool that was granted to them in 2013 under the 21st Century DOE Facilities under Act 155, which allows the DOE to generate revenue for education,” Kawakami said.
As a businessman, Perriello said he would love to have conversations with the DOE to find ways to generate resources.
“Our young people are the future of Hawaii and it’s important that we invest in that future,” he said.
Bethany Freudenthal, crime, courts and county reporter, 652-7891, firstname.lastname@example.org