Let's get Felix behind us
By David Shapiro
As the Legislature investigates state spending on special education under the Felix Consent Decree, the big question is whether it will be an exercise in leadership or gamesmanship.
Legislators have every right to ask how the Felix dollars they've authorized have been spent. If they intend to help the state better comply with the Felix decree, it'll be a great service.
But if lawmakers aim to point fingers of political blame, pick a fight with the federal court or try to weasel out of the cost of complying with Felix, they'll make a bad situation worse as U.S. District Judge David Ezra ponders harsh sanctions.
The bigger problem is not Felix costs but Hawai'i's repeated and embarrassing failure to comply with federal law.
The state agreed to the Felix decree in 1994 after admitting Hawai'i didn't meet federal mandates to provide appropriate education to special-needs children, such as those with mental disabilities.
Promises to comply remain unfulfilled despite Felix costs that now surpass $300 million a year. Ezra found the state in contempt last year for missing compliance deadlines and is now considering stiff fines and a takeover of the system.
This is not an isolated case of local indifference to federal mandates.
Our prison system was under federal court oversight for 14 years. Ezra recently appointed a special master to bring conditions at the Hawai'i State Hospital up to federal standards.
The city had to explain to Ezra last month its dismal failure to make sidewalks more accessible to people who use wheelchairs.
On special education, we face a huge bill now because we failed to make smaller investments to comply with the law over the past 30 years. When you have to catch up all at once, it becomes an expensive burden too big for the state's cumbersome bureaucracy to carry out smoothly. Waste is inevitable.
Legislators have valid questions to ask: Is the Felix money getting to the kids who need it? Is there sufficient financial oversight? Why has the number of special-education students grown so sharply?
But the foreplay that led to this investigation is troubling. Lawmakers took serious notice of Felix costs when they were looking for money to outdo Gov. Cayetano on public worker pay raises.
Senate President Robert Bunda unwisely dared Ezra to take over special education, saying, "I ain't about to give him a blank check."
One of the investigating committee's first moves was to subpoena Ezra's Felix monitors a most unfriendly act.
Lawmakers need to take stock of who holds the trump card here. Ezra doesn't need them to write him a check blank or otherwise. He can commandeer their bank account.
And with all due respect to Bunda, he would probably have to grow some in stature to rise to the level of inconsequential in the estimation of the court.
Ezra has a bit of bluster, but he's a fair judge who has dealt ably with many thorny matters. If legislators want out from under his thumb, they need only comply with the law.
No legislator ever got elected for taking care of disabled children, the mentally ill or people who need wheelchairs to cross the street. They'd rather spend money on more popular projects for people who vote in big numbers. That's why those with special needs rely on federal laws for equal protection.
If we're forever paying for the sins of the past, we'll never have the resources to build a better future. It's time to suck it in and do what it takes to get legal so we can move on to other priorities.
David Shapiro can be reached by email at email@example.com