A Senate committee on Friday approved measures that would use taxes to help fund public education in Hawaii – but a House committee postponed making a decision on its version of the bills.

The bills are part of the Hawaii State Teachers Union’s proposal to have the Legislature put a question on the 2018 ballot that would seek voter approval of a constitutional amendment establishing a surcharge on residential investment properties and visitor accommodations to provide more funding for public schools.

The union’s proposal comes in the form of two bills: Senate Bill 686 and Senate Bill 683.

In an effort to fund public schools, HSTA unsuccessfully tried to increase the General Excise Tax by 1 percent last year.

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One would establish the surcharge and create a special state fund for the collected monies, and the other would add language to the state Constitution allowing the Legislature to establish taxes on such properties in order to “fund a quality public education for all of Hawaii’s children.”

The bills were passed out of the Senate Committee on Education with amendments. They’ll now move on to the Senate committees on Ways and Means and Judiciary and Labor.

“I totally believe that we have to find a way to get the funding that we need for the Department of Education,” said Sen. Michelle Kidani, who introduced the two bills and chairs the Senate education committee.

The Effort To Get More Money For Public Schools

If the constitutional amendment is approved by the Legislature and by voters in 2018, HSTA estimates that the surcharge would generate at least $500 million a year for public schools.

Monies generated from the surcharge would be used to recruit and retain teachers, reduce the size of public education classes, improve staffing and resources for special education, and offer more instruction in career and technical education and Hawaiian and Polynesian studies and the arts.

“We cannot continue in Hawaii to underfund our public schools,” said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee during his testimony on Friday. “We have to find a solution because the status quo is unacceptable.”

There would be exemptions for properties that are rented for less than $1,500 a month, are rented or owned by low-income residents, senior citizens on fixed incomes, Hawaiian Homesteaders or disabled people, or are public, owned by nonprofits or used for charity or school purposes.

Many of HSTA’s members attended Friday’s House and Senate hearings, some testifying in person in addition to their written testimonies in support of the measures.

Jennie Hancock is a teacher at Waikoloa Elementary School on the Big Island, but she’s taught at other schools on the island and on Oahu. She said she once taught at a school where she had 34 second graders in one classroom.

She said there were days where it felt like she couldn’t look every single student in the eye because there were so many of them.

“We’re all here because we love our students, and we love what we do, but we cannot keep stretching ourselves so paper thin trying to cover what should be covered for us but cannot be because we’re just missing money,” she said.

However, some were concerned about the impact the surcharge would have on affordable housing. The Chamber of Commerce Hawaii and Sen. Gil Riviere, a member of the Senate’s education committee, said at the two Friday hearings that the surcharge would eventually be put on the shoulders of renters, not the investors of the properties.

Many teachers added to their written testimonies at Friday’s hearings. Some said they don’t know how much longer they can continue to stay and teach in Hawaii with their insufficient wages.

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Riviere said that if teachers are the renters, that means they’ll be the ones paying for the surcharge.

“I think it has to be part of the conversation,” he said at the Senate hearing. “There’s limited money out there.”

House Committee Will Decide On Companion Bills Next Week

The House Education Committee put off a decision on the House version of the two bills, House Bill 180 and House Bill 182, until Monday.

Rep. Roy Takumi, who chairs the House committee, said the intent is to pass the measures out of the committee, but they wanted to defer decision making because they had concerns about how the constitutional amendment would define “quality” education.

During Friday’s hearing, Rep. Takashi Ohno said he had concerns about that language because everyone has a different definition of what “quality” is and that could open up the state to lawsuits.

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