Proposed budget cuts spark heated debate
By Gordon Y.K. Pang
Advertiser Capitol Bureau
Lawmakers will reconsider their decision to slash 23 vacant positions in the Department of Human Services budget that are federally financed, Senate Ways and Means Chairman Brian Taniguchi yesterday said after a sometimes-heated informational briefing with members of the Lingle administration.
The administration members described their version of a supplemental budget designed to provide an average $60 million annually in raises for state workers. The Legislature's plan, according to administration estimates, would cost $100 million annually.
The meeting became contentious, and questions about how the discrepancy would be dealt with remain unresolved.
Human Services Director Lillian Koller said she saw no logic in cutting vacant positions, worth about $1 million, that are 100 percent federally financed. Far from freeing up expenditures for the $3.6 billion supplemental general fund budget for the coming year, the move could make matters worse, she said.
Six of the positions cut, Koller said, are in the Vocational Rehabilitation and Services For The Blind Division. Such workers determine which disabled people in the state are eligible for federal cash assistance. Without those workers, Koller said, those who would otherwise be eligible for permanently disabled federal payments need to wait longer to find out if they qualify, and in the meantime need to receive state assistance.
"That's where it starts to get exacerbated because they're spending state dollars for general assistance," Koller said. She estimated that the 45-member division brings in $265 million in federal assistance each year.
The Housing and Community Development Corp. of Hawai'i, another DHS agency, lost l7 positions as a result of the Legislature's budget cuts, including those who conduct property management and maintenance at public housing projects.
Taniguchi, D-10th (Manoa, McCully), questioned why the positions have not been filled if they are so critical. The positions were among more than 400 cuts made by lawmakers. Each of the vacancies were open for six months or more.
Koller said the positions have been tough to fill but that vacancies have been reduced by more than 200 percent since she took over the department 16 months ago.
Koller and state Budget Director Georgina Kawamura said those position cuts, among more than 400 made by the Legislature, showed the folly of the expedited budget process employed by lawmakers in recent weeks. House Bill 1800, the state's supplemental budget plan, was approved last week with more than three weeks left in the session, the earliest in recent memory.
Koller said: "We had absolutely no heads up ... it was a total surprise to me."
Taniguchi said the House and Senate had put information from their respective budgets online weeks ago and that Koller's department could have objected to the cuts as other agencies had. "If you didn't look at it, that's your problem," he said.
Kawamura said while some of the information was online, worksheets detailing specific cuts were not. "We were trying to keep up with all the changes," she said, acknowledging some information may have been missed. "I think we were all flabbergasted how quickly this all went by."
"Thank you, my heart bleeds, but we ..." Taniguchi said, a smile on his face.
"I'm not asking for your heart to bleed," Kawamura said, cutting him off.
Reach Gordon Y.K. Pang at email@example.com or at 525-8070.