Hawaii Legislature approves $67M to ease school furloughs Social services will get $23.7M
By Derrick DePledge
Advertiser Government Writer
State lawmakers gave final approval yesterday to a bill that would authorize $67 million from the state's Hurricane Relief Fund to eliminate teacher furloughs next school year.
Lawmakers described the bill as their contribution to ending the furlough stalemate, knowing that it is up to Gov. Linda Lingle to sign the bill into law and release the money and for teachers to agree to come back to the classroom.
Some lawmakers had hoped — and had even announced late Friday — that the money could be used for the remaining three furlough days this school year and the 17 furlough days scheduled next school year. But the final draft of the bill only devotes money for next school year.
The Hawaii State Teachers Association wants the governor to sign the bill. The teachers union hopes the money can be used to finance a supplemental agreement reached with the state Board of Education and state Department of Education to end furloughs on classroom instruction days next school year.
Lingle has said she would release $57 million, not the entire amount available, and said educators could decide which school employees come back on furlough days. The governor has also asked teachers to voluntarily work the remaining three furlough days this school year, which the union has said is contrary to the supplemental agreement to the teachers' two-year contract.
"We're really happy it passed," said Vernadette Gonzalez, who is involved with Save Our Schools and is the parent of a student at Noelani Elementary School in Mānoa. "But we're hoping the governor will step up to the plate."
Yesterday, in state House and Senate floor debates, lawmakers said that the furlough stalemate had gone on too long. Lingle, the teachers union and the school board agreed to furloughs last September to help with the state's budget deficit. But Lingle later conceded it was a mistake, and the governor and educators have been trading offers for months trying to undo the decision.
State Senate Majority Leader Gary Hooser, D-7th (Kaua'i, Ni'ihau), described the impasse as a travesty that stems from a lack of leadership.
"We can sit here and bash public workers. We can blame the unions. We can blame the governor. We can even blame the parents and the students," he said. "But all the blame in the world will not send the students back to school."
State Senate Minority Leader Fred Hemmings, R-25th (Kailua, Waimānalo, Hawai'i Kai), who opposed the bill, said lawmakers are being extorted by the teachers union and educators for additional state money instead of reducing wasteful spending at the Department of Education.
"This has nothing to do with the keiki," he said. "This has to do with money, money and money."
BORROW VS. TAKE
In the House, state Rep. K. Mark Takai, D-34th (Newtown, Waiau, Pearl City), said lawmakers were left with no other option.
"If we support ending furloughs in our schools, we've got to support this bill," he said. "If you vote 'no,' you're saying you want furloughs to continue. There's no other option."
House Republicans, who had wanted to borrow, rather than take, the money from the Hurricane Relief Fund, warned of the danger of depleting the roughly $180 million that remains in the fund.
The Hurricane Relief Fund, established in 1993 after Hurricane Iniki prompted many private insurers to leave the market, was financed through homeowner insurance premiums, annual assessments on private insurance companies, and mortgage recording fees.
While it has been nearly a decade since the last hurricane insurance policies backed by the fund expired, the money that remains could be useful after another hurricane, most likely to help with reinsurance.
State Rep. Kymberly Pine, R-43rd ('Ewa Beach, Iroquois Point, Pu'uloa), who voted against the bill, said homeowners and others who paid into the Hurricane Relief Fund had an expectation that it would be used as intended, not diverted for other purposes.
"Which fund are we going to raid next, because the economy is going to be just as bad?" she said of future years.
State House Minority Leader Lynn Finnegan, R-32nd (Lower Pearlridge, 'Āiea, Hālawa), struggled with a vote that could have political consequences in an election year. She first said she was voting "yes" with reservations, then "no," then "yes" with reservations again.