As we enter the Christmas and New Year holiday season, my thoughts go out to all in our community who are struggling.
Today especially, Hawai‘i’s public workers are on my mind, those many men and women who clean our parks, process our permits, protect our health and environment and more — who have just been informed they will be hit with furloughs in a few short weeks.
That is a heck of a Christmas message to have to share with your children.
Cutting valuable public services to balance the budget is a bad idea, and unnecessary. Anyone thinking this can be accomplished without negative tangible impacts to health, environment and education is fooling themselves.
Our teachers are included in these furloughs. Teachers don’t make enough as it is. We ask them to put themselves in COVID high-risk situations, teaching our keiki in person. Then we ask them to learn a whole new way of teaching electronically. Because of their dedication and commitment, they do it all and more. And now this is how we show our appreciation?
Our children need more teachers in the classroom, not fewer. Our economy depends on government civil-service workers to process professional and construction permits and applications. Health and environmental protections require people to do the testing and reviews needed to ensure safety.
Cutting the days on the job by approximately 10% means a reduction in services by an equal amount. As we exit the pandemic, we need our government-services infrastructure more than ever to be up to full speed or better.
Our legislative leaders must step up to protect workers, both public and private. And you and I must demand that be the case.
The Legislature should, of course, have called for a special session months ago in anticipation of the budget and other emergency needs brought about by COVID. There is no excuse, really. They have been able to host countless informational briefings, and the Senate has called itself into session in order to confirm various judges. County councils statewide have remained open, conducting the people’s business at the county level.
The governor claims the furloughs/pay cuts will save $300 million annually. With a little bit of courage and a touch of creativity, House Speaker Scott Saiki, House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke, Senate President Ron Kouchi and Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz could rally their majorities and find the funds needed to protect these workers and the valuable services they provide.
For starters, here are eight different funding options from the Hawai‘i Budget and Policy Center that could easily close the gap in funding being used to justify public-employee furloughs (see the chart and hibudget.org/blog/eight-progressive-ways-to-raise-revenue-hawaii-covid-19). None of these funding options would negatively impact middle- or low-income local residents.
In addition to these eight, here are two more to be added to the list — cannabis and the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority.
The legalization of cannabis for responsible adult use has generated a billion dollars in new tax revenue for Colorado. For Hawai‘i’s legislative leadership to continue delaying what most believe is inevitable is beyond comprehension.
The $100 million budget of the HTA must also be put on the chopping block. State funds derived from the transient accommodations tax should be used to support public services and public workers. The HTA provides many valuable services. However, tourism marketing money should come directly from the industry that benefits. #defundHTA
There are MANY ways to raise the revenue needed.
The way the system works is that only the state Legislature can pass the laws and increase the funding needed to balance the state budget and avoid worker furloughs.
Some individual legislators have begun to speak out, opposing the proposed furloughs and the accompanying austerity mindset. House/Senate leadership, however, has remained silent. They prefer, it seems, to watch the governor twist in the wind, sidestepping their responsibility and framing the issue as one that’s between the governor and the unions.
If our legislative leadership continues to remain silent, they are as much to blame as the governor. If they support and value public workers, they should say so, and announce now their willingness to increase revenue and avoid furloughs.
Gary Hooser is the former vice-chair of the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i, and served eight years in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kaua‘i County Council, and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawai‘i Alliance for Progressive Action, and is executive director of the Pono Hawai‘i Initiative.