The Hawaii teachers union is asking the Legislature to approve a constitutional amendment that would establish a statewide surcharge on residential investment property and visitor accommodations.

If the amendment is approved by lawmakers this session and voters in 2018, the surcharge would generate at least $500 million per year for public schools, according to an email that the Hawaii State Teachers Association sent to its members Tuesday night.

“We want to give people in Hawaii the ability to decide if they want to fund their schools,” HSTA President Corey Rosenlee told Civil Beat on Wednesday. “And our hope is that the Legislature will give this opportunity to the citizens of Hawaii.”

Teachers and supporters cheer during a rally in front of the Capitol at the beginning of last year’s legislative session, when the union unsuccessfully sought a general excise tax increase.

Cory Lum / Civil Beat

Revenue generated by the surcharge would be used for recruiting and retaining teachers, lowering class sizes, improving special education staffing and resources and offering additional instruction in career and technical education, visual and performing arts, Hawaiian and Polynesian studies and the Hawaiian language, the HSTA said.

Low-income households, senior citizens on fixed incomes, people with disabilities, wounded veterans, charities, schools and Hawaiian homesteaders would be exempt from the surcharge, the union said

“Our schools need the funding, and we can’t forget that problem and not deal with it,” Rosenlee said. 

There are three state taxes that could be raised to help public schools, he said, but state income taxes are already high and the HSTA unsuccessfully proposed increasing the general excise tax last year, so that left property taxes. Hawaii’s property tax rates are the lowest in the nation.

HSTA’s proposal takes the form of two measures – Senate Bill 683 and Senate Bill 686 – that are being introduced by state Sen. Michelle Kidani. One proposes amendments to the state constitution to give the Legislature the power to establish the surcharge on such properties, and the other would establish the surcharge and a special fund for the collected monies to be deposited.

Kidani had introduced HSTA’s unsuccessful request last year to increase the GET by 1 percent and said that as chair of the Senate Education Committee, she has to do everything she can to provide more funding for schools.

“If we cannot find another resource to help our students, we are going to be seeing budget cuts more and more that will impact our students and teachers and our DOE,” she told Civil Beat. 

Other components of HSTA’s legislative priorities for this year include:

  • Expand the use of funds collected from the school impact fees. HSTA wants the funds to be able to be used for leasing or purchasing completed construction or new school facilities, building new school facilities and improving existing school structures.
  • Require the Department of Education to consult with bargaining unit representatives to establish an evaluation program for educators that would not affect their compensation or employment status.
  • Allow the DOE to borrow money from the Hawaii green infrastructure loan program to cool classrooms, with general funds being appropriated to repay the fund.
  • $10 million for the Hawaii State Public Charter School Commission to pay for facilities.
  • Guarantee minimum staffing levels for remote schools on Maui, Lanai, Molokai, Niihau and the Big Island. HSTA previously wanted to ask for an additional $1,000 per pupil allotment for those schools on top of the Weighted Student Formula. Rosenlee told Civil Beat on Wednesday that the union decided to alter its request.

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