UPDATED 5/2/2011 12:15 p.m. Among the bills that failed to meet a Friday deadline was House Bill 575, which would continue a 5-percent pay cut for top legislative, executive and judicial positions.

Unless legislators give HB 575 a floor vote this week, the pay cuts will be restored this July 1.

In the case of a legislator, that amounts to a $2,500 salary increase this year alone.1

Cuts Began in 2009

Two years ago, in the midst of a global recession and a dramatic downturn in state revenues, the Legislature enacted Act 85.

The law placed a 5-percent cut on the annual salaries of the governor, the lieutenant governor, the justices and judges of all state courts and the directors and deputies of all 16 Cabinet departments.

Act 85 negated the Hawaii Commission on Salary’s recommendation in 2007, approved by the Legislature in 2009 and signed into law by then-Gov. Linda Lingle that year, that substantially increased those salaries each year through 2014.

UPDATE For example, according to a legislative worksheet obtained by Civil Beat, a legislator making $48,708 in 2009 would make $54,000 in 2012 and $57,852 in 2014.

Act 85 reduced legislators’ salaries to $46,273, the level at which they remain two years later.

Similarly, the salaries of department heads were cut to $114,422 and the salaries of circuit court judges were cut to $149,739 — some $20,000 and $35,000 less, respectively, than the 2012 levels.

(UPDATE Concerning the salary figure above for judges, Judiciary Spokeswoman Marsha Kitagawa emailed Civil Beat Monday, saying, “Actually, Act 85’s 5% cut reduced circuit court judges’ salary to $136,127 and not $149,739. Therefore, $136,127 is $47,000 less than 2012 levels, and not $35,000 less as reported. Act 85 affected all state judges’ salaries as of June 30, 2009, and not July 1, 2009. On June 30, 2009, circuit court judges were earning $143,292 per year.)

Lawmakers had came under criticism by some for approving their own pay increases in 2009. But the recommended levels came from the Salary Commission, not the Legislature.

The commission noted that the last time all three branches had received a pay increase was in 2004 (for the executive branch) and 2005 (for the legislative and judicial branches).

Prior to that, the last increase for the legislative branch was in 1993, the last for the judiciary was in 2000 and the last for the executive was in 1990.

“The Commission’s general rationale is that the compensation of the elected and appointed officials should be fair and equitable, and sufficient to attract and retain high quality individuals while at the same time being prudent in the expenditure of public funds,” the commission stated in its 2007 report.

Little Opposition

UPDATE Act 85 is set to expire June 30 of this year, at which time all the salaries would be restored to the higher 2009 levels. By Jan. 1, 2012, legislators would be making nearly $8,000 more than they are making now.

The collective budget mantra from the governor on down in 2011, however, has been “shared sacrifice.”

HB 575, which would extend the 5-percent cut until June 30, 2013, was introduced four months ago by eight House Democrats, including Speaker Calvin Say and House Finance Chairman Marcus Oshiro.

The bill’s chief authors included two freshmen, Reps. Ty Cullen and Mark Hashem.

While some lawmakers grumbled that they hadn’t received a pay raise in years, HB 575 faced little opposition as it made its way through the legislative process. The only lawmaker to vote “no” was Speaker Emeritus Joe Souki.

The only substantive change to the bill has been to extend the sunset date until Dec. 31, 2013 — a six-month extension to the extension. That’s how the lastest draft of HB 575 reads.

HB 575 received no written testimony in opposition.

But Rod Maile, administrative director of the courts, did submit testimony that stated, “The salaries of trial judges in Hawaii, based on a 2010 cost-of-living comparison done by the National Center for State Courts, rank last, that is, 51st, of judges in all states including the District of Columbia.”

Maile also wrote, “In 2009, the year in which budget reductions were announced, judges representing 161 years of judicial experience retired. Reasons varied but one element was a concern with how the budget reductions would impact pensions. As pension is salary based, a reduction in salaries can lesson pension amounts.”

The Senate’s Proposal

On April 19 the Senate selected its conference committee members for HB 575, led by co-chairs Clayton Hee and David Ige. The House did not name its members — led by co-chairs Oshiro and Karl Rhoads — until April 25.

By then the busy conference committee phase of the Legislature was in full swing, and nothing much came in a scheduled public meeting about the bill’s status on April 27.

Behind the scenes, Rhoads proposed a conference draft that called for moving the sunset date back to June 30, 2013. As he told Civil Beat, the full restoration of salary levels that would go into affect on Jan 1, 2014, would be in dramatically higher amounts in order to comply with the approved 2009 levels.

Rhoads said the idea was not likely to be adopted.

Meanwhile, Senate leadership offered its own “CD 1,” this one calling for all salaries to kick in at the 2011 levels this July 1. For a legislator, that would translate into a pay raise of about $6,400.

The Senate’s CD 1 also called for a 5-percent cut of the higher salary level, which would last until June 30, 2013, at which time all salaries would be restored to the 2009 recommended levels. For a legislator, by then the annual salary would be nearly $56,000.

Both proposals also said any salary changes would be made “commensurate with any salary adjustment” for after July 1, 2013, recommended by the Salary Commission and accepted by the Legislature.

The original draft of HB 575 does not include such language.

In another development, Maile, the courts’ administrator, on April 26 wrote a five-page letter to Hee, Rhoads, Ige and Oshiro. The letter cc’d all the other conference committee members.

This time, Maile urged the lawmakers to consider “all feasible options,” including reducing pay for a shorter time period.

Maile also raised concerns about “ambiguity” in the most recent draft of the bill and suggested that the draft may pose “potential constitutional challenges.”

The letter was written before the House and Senate conference drafts were proposed.

The Reconvene Dance

HB 575 had one official conference committee meeting time on Thursday, April 28 (at 8 p.m.) and three meetings (11 a.m., 2 p.m. and 5 p.m.) on Friday, April 29, the deadline day for all fiscal bills.

There were other bills on the agenda as well, but no action was taken on HB 575.

But at the 2 p.m. meeting, Rhoads announced that he wanted to defer the bill, saying he had concerns about “technical problems” with the latest draft of the bill. He said he was worried about “the diversion of raising salaries in the middle of a budget crisis.”

Hee accepted the deferral, then changed his mind, asking for the committee to reconvene at 5 p.m.

Unable to obtain quorum at 5 p.m., Rhoads and Hee called for two recesses, finally giving up as the 6 p.m. deadline imposed by Senate Vice President Donna Mercado Kim came and went.

The last two days of conference committee are distinguished by sudden changes in positions and multiple meetings, most behind closed doors.

Why lawmakers could not agree on whether to extend their own salary cuts six separate times in a 22-hour period, however, is unclear.

Rhoads, aware of the possible negative public perception, seemed unsettled by the inability to agree on the bill. Hee seemed unperturbed. And Maile waited patiently through all of the meetings.

As lawmakers left the conference room after 6 p.m., Rhoads told Civil Beat he was confident HB 575 would be pulled out of conference committee and sent to the floor of each chamber for a final vote this week.

The agreed upon draft — the “clean” version of the bill, as they say — extends the 5-percent pay cut for all branches for two-and-a-half more years.

Is it possible HB 575 could still be amended by a proposed CD 1 that would lead to pay increases beginning this July? Yes.

But Rhoads told Civil Beat, “There’s no way we are going to vote for pay increases.”

About the Author