Hawaii Legislature looks at ways to cut teacher furloughs
By Loren Moreno
Advertiser Education Writer
A state Senate committee on Monday will hear two bills that seek to reduce or eliminate public school teacher furloughs, one that would take money from the state's hurricane relief fund and another that would increase the general excise tax by 1 percentage point.
Sen. Norman Sakamoto, D-15th (Waimalu, Airport, Salt Lake), chairman of the Senate Education and Housing Committee, introduced both bills and said they are among a string of measures that will be heard this session to restore classroom time for public school students.
"For the public, for myself, the concern is how do we find funds to give the students back their instructional days. That's where I'm at," Sakamoto said.
The teachers union supports the bills. But it also notes that unless Gov. Linda Lingle supports the measures, it's unlikely the money would make its way to the public school system.
"The Legislature can only do their part and ultimately it will come down to the governor. Hopefully she would release the funds if that happens," said Hawaii State Teachers Association president Wil Okabe.
If Sakamoto's bills were to gain the support of lawmakers, Lingle could veto the bills. Even if the vetoes are overridden, Lingle could decide not to release the money.
"We need to get to a point where there is a willingness to agree on something. Because she still has control as far as releasing the money," Sakamoto said.
Lingle believes that raising taxes, especially in this down economy, would hurt businesses and residents, said Lingle spokesman Russell Pang when asked about the Sakamoto bills yesterday.
Lingle has already presented a "fair and generous" offer to use up to $50 million of the rainy day fund to restore 24 furlough days, Pang said. As for the hurricane relief fund, she did not touch it in the budget she submitted in December, Pang said.
Interim Superintendent Kathryn Matayoshi said her top priority during the legislative session is to reduce the furlough days.
"While furloughs have cast a negative spotlight on our state, it has also refocused the conversation on our public schools and the need to make education in our state a top priority. To that end, all funding sources are welcome," she said.
Under one bill, SB 2436, the state Legislature would appropriate a yet-to-be-determined dollar amount from the state hurricane relief fund or other emergency reserve funds, such as the rainy day fund, to restore as many instructional days as possible during the current school year. The state Department of Education has said it costs about $5 million a day to operate the state's school system.
There are nine furloughs remaining in the year, with the next scheduled for tomorrow. Sakamoto said because SB 2436 deals with the current school year, the Legislature would need to act quickly.
"My hope will be at the end of the hearing on Monday we can pass something forward to the next committee in the Senate, because it is a timing issue. Every week, furlough days tick off. We cannot wait until April to pass a bill. It'll be too late," Sakamoto said.
Another bill, SB 2437, would deal with the 17 furlough days set for next school year. Sakamoto said the measure would set aside money from an emergency reserve fund to deal with the first half of the school year. The last half of the school year would be addressed with a 1 percentage point increase in the state's general excise tax. That tax is currently a maximum of 4.712 percent on O'ahu and 4.166 percent on Neighbor Islands.
To offset the increase in the excise tax, the bill would establish a tax credit for the purchase of food items and would increase the state's standard income tax deduction amount.
"It includes perhaps that we should replenish where we took the money from, whether it's the hurricane fund or the rainy day fund with the GET increase," Sakamoto said.