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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, April 9, 2010

What just happened?

This latest conundrum would be funny if understanding it wasn't so important.

The Hawai'i Supreme Court has ruled on a case whose title and potential impact are both hefty Marion Everson, et al. v. State of Hawai'i, et al. It involves retiree health benefits, a big part of the state's budgetary liability.

The administration wants to make cuts to health benefits but advocates for retirees say the state constitution bars them from being "diminished or impaired."

Union leaders and administration officials alike have been drumming fingertips nervously, awaiting the decision that will determine whether benefit adjustments can be made to the state Employer-Union Health Benefits Trust Fund, which is losing cash in a steady stream and is expected to run out of money this year.

The ruling followed a Circuit Court finding that retiree benefits in the EUTF are protected and must be identical to those of active employees.

But the 44-page decision issued by the court is so dense and baffling that even the lawyers most closely connected to the case don't agree on what it actually means. A state budget and finance official said she planned to ask the attorney general for an interpretation, but the A.G. isn't saying anything about the case until the Lingle administration decides whether to seek clarification or reconsideration, or whatever.

Bottom line: The decision could cost the state millions or save the state millions. Tens of millions, maybe hundreds.

The courts' new online records make it much easier for ordinary folks to get their hands on rulings (click the Ho'ohiki link on the left at www.courts.state.hi.us or download it at www.tinyurl.com/EUTFruling).

But having the documents doesn't help much if no one can understand them. All you esteemed folks in the black robes: summarize in plain English, please. That's the language the rest of us speak.