As chair of the House Higher Education Committee, Rep. Isaac Choy is known for his outspoken and biting criticism of the University of Hawaii’s management and spending habits.

In past budget briefings he’s slammed the university for its oversight of construction projects, called on the campuses to cut non-performing programs,  and suggested that perhaps UH has an “unsustainable product.”

This year though, he’s doing more than chastising leaders of the state’s sole public university system — he’s introducing an aggressive slate of bills that would have significant impacts on UH’s finances and autonomy.

Rep. Isaac Choy has introduced nearly two dozen UH-related bills this session.

Rep. Isaac Choy has introduced nearly two dozen UH-related bills this session.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

House Bill 1685  would require the university to seek approval before paying anyone more than twice what the governor makes.

House Bill 2193 would give lawmakers the right to vote down any tuition increases.

House Bill 1801 would make $4 million in cuts to executive salaries to pay graduate assistants.

House Bill 1612 would put the Hawaii Community Development Authority in charge of the “non-education related development” of lands owned by UH West Oahu.

Choy says the nearly two dozen bills he’s introduced in this session related to UH are nothing out of the ordinary — neither in the the number he’s introduced, nor the scope of the proposals.

“It’s not an attack at all,” Choy said. “I think basically we are trying to work towards getting the best for our students.”

But other lawmakers and political observers point out that while it’s not unusual for a committee chair to introduce a large number of bills, it is unusual for the bills to be overwhelmingly opposed by the institution they are aimed at helping.

The university supports just six of the 23 UH-related bills in this session introduced by Choy.

Rep. Roy Takumi, who sits on the Higher Education Committee, likened the bills to a military campaign where you wear the enemy down by “blitzing” an area with bombs.

“Maybe shock and awe works in war-making, but I don’t think it works in policy-making,” Takumi said, adding that he believes the bills have good intentions.

Others say Choy’s bills are indicative of frustrations that lawmakers have had for years about the university’s management and performance.

“There’s been a lingering sense that the university has lost its way, and they’ve never been able to turn that image around I guess,” said Sen. Brian Taniguchi, who chairs the Senate Higher Education Committee.

Big Changes Proposed

Choy says many of the bills he’s introduced this session come from monitoring the university’s budget requests and noting what he calls a lack of “student-centered” requests.

As an example Choy points to recent appropriation requests for the Cancer Center and UH Research and Innovation.

“I think the university is not well managed, from the regents through the system to the campuses,” Choy said.  “And because it’s not well managed, I think we have to take action.”

Putting students first is what Choy says he’s trying to do through many of his bills, including a second attempt at creating a collective bargaining union for graduate students. A similar bill passed last year but was vetoed by Gov. David Ige.

Right, University of Hawaii at Manoa's Lincoln Annex 1 located near portable buildings behind the Korean studies building. UH Manoa. 18 nov 2014. photograph Cory Lum.

Rep. Choy has been highly critical of UH’s growing deferred maintenance backlog. He is sponsoring a bill this year that would require the university to come up with a plan for “full utilization of its buildings.”

Cory Lum

UH opposes the bill, in part, because it says graduate assistants are primarily students and their employment is a part of their curriculum.

“Collective bargaining for graduate students is not consistent with the overall nature of collective bargaining,” said Kalbert Young, the university system’s chief financial officer. “These are not employees in the truest sense.”

The student tuition bill is aimed at “giving students a voice,” said Rep. Linda Ichiyama, who also sits on the House Higher Education Committee, by allowing the Legislature to veto increases that the university has not made a strong enough of a case for.

“We have a student debt crisis facing us right now,” Ichiyama said.

The challenge for the university is that it is funded primarily through tax revenue doled out by lawmakers and tuition. If it loses the ability to control both, then it loses the ability to raise additional funding as needed.

“Part of it is a national thing where state governments generally are providing less resources to higher education,” Taniguchi said. “On the one hand I guess we air problems the university is having in terms of trying to deal with certain things, and on the other hand we don’t give them the resources to really deal with them. So in some ways they are sort of caught in the middle.” 

The Legislature should be supporting UH more, Taniguchi said.

“There’s been a lingering sense that the university has lost its way.” — Sen. Brian Taniguchi

But Taniguchi says he also understands why it may be hesitant to do so. 

“Generally I think the feeling has been at the legislature that the university hasn’t been doing that good of a job, so why should we give them more money?” he said.

Another proposal, House Bill 1800,  would require funds appropriated to the university for a specific purpose be spent for that purpose or returned to the general fund. 

The bill requiring legislative approval for any position where a university employee would make two or more times what the governor does appears to be garnering real support among lawmakers.

The bill doesn’t take into account a number of market and economic factors, Young said.

While there are about 10 employees in the UH system who make more than twice the governor, those salaries are either average — or below average — for what a comparable sized university pays its top deans and coaches, Young said.

The university is supporting House Bill 1624, which calls for a comprehensive audit of the UH system. It also supports an appropriations bill for a student enrollment system aimed at speeding up graduation pathways.

Some of the other bills, such as the university salary bill, could infringe on collective bargaining rules or the university’s autonomy, Young said.

“A lot of these bills are reformist and in the aggregate if you took all of them it’s too much change and not necessarily in the right direction,” Young said. “And they don’t really pay attention to the fact that we only have one public university system in the state of Hawaii and these bills don’t demonstrate a lot of support for the university.”

It’s too early in session to have a clear sense of how much, or any, support Choy will be able to rally for his reforms.

“To institute change, you’re going to have to have an attitude of change first,” Choy said. “Maybe you have to get the management to take a hard look in the mirror and that process is rather lengthy.”

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