The Hawaii State Teachers Association has tried for years to get the Legislature to pay more to help public schools.
Last year, lawmakers approved an HSTA-backed constitutional amendment ballot question that called for imposing a state tax on investment property for education. But the Hawaii Supreme Court invalidated the measure just weeks before the Nov. 6 general election, ruling that its language was too vague.
After the court decision, supporters and opponents expressed a desire to find common ground on education spending.
On Tuesday, with members of the HSTA watching from the gallery, the state Senate voted to increase the general excise and use tax by 0.5 percent to provide a dedicated funding source for the Department of Education and the University of Hawaii. Senate Bill 1474 now heads to the House of Representatives.
“Members, we are here yet again to vote on a measure to increase funding for our public education system,” Senate Vice President Michelle Kidani said before the vote. “We know that we have needs in our schools. We have classrooms without proper supplies, equipment and highly qualified teachers. We cannot continue to wait and see if more money will magically appear, or rely on growing the economy to put more resources into our classrooms.”
Kidani, who also chairs the Senate Education Committee, acknowledged the regressive nature of the GET, which impacts low-income people the most. But she reminded her colleagues that the GET has remained at 4 percent since 1965, although each county is now allowed to levy an additional surcharge of 0.5 percent for transportation work.
SB 1474 was approved by a vote of 21-3, but not before Sen. Lorraine Inouye voiced her objection to levying another tax on her Big Island constituents. Mayor Harry Kim and the County Council, she said, have already established a .25 percent GET surcharge on the Big Island and may soon double it.
Inouye voted against the bill, as did Sens. Gil Riviere and Laura Thielen.
SB 1474 is also opposed by the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, which fought the proposed constitutional amendment last year.
Another Big Island senator, Russell Ruderman, said every effort to increase taxes to help schools has failed, yet the teacher shortage remains. He supported the tax increase.
SB 1474 was among dozens of bills passing the Senate on Tuesday as the halfway point of the 2019 Legislature approaches. Thursday is the deadline for what’s known as first crossover — the day in which bills must be approved in their originating chamber before “crossing over” to the other chamber for consideration.
The House also passed scores of bills, including one making public the name of police officers who have been suspended or discharged.
The session adjourns May 2.
Naming Bad Cops
All but six representatives in the 51-member state House voted in favor of a bill that would require county police departments to disclose the names of officers who have been suspended or discharged.
House Bill 285 moved through the House with no opposition and none of the police departments testified on it. However, the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers criticized the bill in six pages of written testimony filed late to the House Judiciary Committee.
SHOPO President Malcom Lutu wrote that HB 285 wouldn’t hold officers more accountable but that what it “will promote is the selling of newspapers, shaming our officers’ families and discouraging new recruits from joining the department.”
He argued that each department’s own internal investigations, as well as the union’s grievance process, should be enough.
Currently, the identities of officers are only disclosed publicly after they have already been discharged and gone through a union arbitration process. But that can take years and often results in officers getting lighter punishments than those handed down by the departments.
Lutu took particular issue with Honolulu Civil Beat, and said that the bill would only serve its self interest.
“While we fully appreciate, and respect transparency and our officers accept the risks of the job, heeding to Civil Beat’s self interests does not help anyone but Civil Beat,” Lutu said.
Civil Beat sued the Honolulu Police Department in 2013 over the legality of withholding the names of suspended police officers. The request was for records relating to 12 officers who the Honolulu Police Department said were found to have engaged in serious misconduct, including assaults on citizens, drunken driving, lying to investigators and beating up a co-worker.
The Supreme Court ruled in the news outlet’s favor and remanded the case back to Circuit Court, where a judge is determining which names to release based on a balancing test that weighs public interest against the privacy interests of the officers.
Attorney Brian Black of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest testified in support of the bill, saying, “Unless the Legislature makes police officers like all other government employees, every record requested about a suspended police officer will be held up for years — regardless how strong the public interest.”
The bill also has the support of the state Office of Information Practices, Common Cause Hawaii, the League of Women Voters, the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Civil Liberties Union of Hawaii.
Representatives Sharon Har, Sam Kong, Calvin Say, James Tokioka, Bob McDermott and Val Okimoto voted against the measure.
Death To Plastics
The Senate approved a sweeping measure restricting the use of plastic materials.
Senate Bill 522 would ban the buying, use, sale or distribution of beverage bottles, utensils, stirring sticks, polystyrene foam containers and straws by state and county agencies after July 1, 2021, and by businesses selling food and beverages after that time, too.
The distribution or sale of plastic bags would be banned after July 1, 2023. Bans on plastic bag use are already on the books in the counties, though statutes vary.
Sen. Mike Gabbard, SB 522’s author, said on the Senate floor Tuesday that biodegradable materials are already being used to make many of the same products. Eliminating plastic use, he said, is in line with Hawaii’s goal to move toward 100 percent renewable energy by 2045 and its position as the first state to ban coral-damaging chemicals in sunscreens and the use of pesticide containing certain toxins.
Inouye and Ruderman, the Big Island senators, said their support for SB 522 was influenced by the unfortunate reputation of a beach on their island — Kamilo, in the Kau District — as a location where tons of plastic debris wash up.
The bill is opposed by the Retail Merchants of Hawaii, Chamber of Commerce Hawaii and several restaurants and their distributors.
Two related bills — one prohibiting restaurants from using polystyrene foam containers and another prohibiting food service business from using polystyrene as well as plastic straws and plastic bags — also advanced out of the Senate with wide support. The Hawaii Food Industry Association and the Hawaii Restaurant Association are among the groups in opposition.
Also making the cut in the Senate on Tuesday were bills increasing the minimum wage, creating a new corporation to run the state’s airports, establishing reporting requirements for deaths in correctional facilities and having Hawaii adopt appliance energy efficiency standards similar to California’s.
Also moving from the Senate to the House were measures allowing for automatic voter registration, setting up voting by mail statewide, requiring mandatory recounts in close elections, letting graduate students unionize, taxing carbon emissions and prohibiting written nondisclosure agreements involving sexual assault and harassment as part of an employee’s conditions of employment.
Funds For New Stadium
The House passed House Bill 1497, which would earmark $50 million in tax dollars to create a stadium development district in Halawa.
That money would allow the Hawaii Community Development Association to begin investing in infrastructure around the stadium, House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said. It could also be used to complete an environmental impact statement, a document necessary for any major construction project, for a new stadium.
The bill would also allow the state to issue up to $150 million in bonds to HCDA to pay for a new stadium to replace the aging Aloha Stadium.
Rep. Gene Ward, one of the few Republicans in the Legislature, liked the idea but didn’t agree with the funding mechanism, he said from the House floor.
“Why aren’t we asking the private sector to chip in ?” Ward asked.
McDermott, a fellow Republican, said that funding for repairs were long overdue.
“If you’ve been in the men’s restroom, you know what I’m talking about,” he said.
McDermott said that a new stadium would struggle to secure a private investor since Hawaii lacks a professional sports team that could anchor it.
Money was also the focus of several other pieces of legislation.
The measure to appropriate money for settling state lawsuits cleared the full House.
Typically, taxpayers are on the hook to shell out the money that covers the settlement claims, but House lawmakers amended HB 942 to take the more than $1.1 million settled so far out of individual departmental budgets instead of from the general funds.
Lawmakers also passed a bill that proposes increasing the Office of Hawaiian Affairs’ share of ceded land payments. House Bill 402 will move to the Senate, but with unspecified amounts for increasing OHA’s share of the payments.
The House also wants to put more checks on executive-level positions, including the U.S. president.
Representatives passed House Bill 712, which requires candidates for president, vice president, governor, lieutenant governor and county mayor to post their income tax returns on the internet.
The House also passed House Bill 316, which would prohibit the governor and county mayors from having other jobs outside of their elected positions. The bill, authored by House Speaker Scott Saiki, would affect Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Kauai Mayor Derek Kawakami and Maui Mayor Mike Victorino. Hawaii County’s Kim is retired from other work besides being mayor.