When a debilitating disease like rat lungworm hits the islands or a homeless encampment under the freeway needs sweeping, state department heads create temporary positions with Gov. David Ige’s blessing so they can respond quickly.

The Ige administration, like those before it, relies on a hiring exemption in the law for projects throughout state government. The most recent tally counts 450 current positions, almost half of which were federally funded, that have paid for an industrial hemp pilot program, background checks, a broadband initiative and homeland security.

That exemption from the normal hiring requirements would end if Senate Bill 2515 becomes law. The measure, introduced by Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, cleared the full Senate unanimously last week and now awaits a hearing in the House, where it was referred to the Labor and Finance committees chaired by Reps. Aaron Ling Johanson and Sylvia Luke, respectively.

Laurel Johnston, Governor Ige's Deputy Chief of Staff answers questions during Ways and Means informational briefings from the Office of the Governor, Office of the Lt. Governor and Department of Budget and Finance held at the Capitol auditorium. 6 jan 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
State Budget Director Laurel Johnston said the bill that cleared the Senate presents operational problems but also raises philosophical questions about the powers of branches of government. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The directors of a dozen state departments have come out strongly against the bill. They said in their testimony in January and February that it would not only mean the loss of a nimbleness they need in a government often mired in bureaucracy, but also federal dollars.

“State government is routinely portrayed as being unresponsive to emergent problems and issues,” Department of Public Safety Director Nolan Espinda testified when the bill sailed through the Senate Labor Committee, chaired by Sen. Jill Tokuda.

“This bill would further that stereotype, hamstringing departments and offices in their efforts to address matters in a timely manner,” Espinda said.

Dela Cruz said the Legislature needs to put the brakes on the administration creating so many positions, which often end up being funded by the state when the federal money runs out.

“They can’t just keep growing government,” he said, noting the compounding financial implications when health and retirement benefits are added.

Budget Director Laurel Johnston said Monday that the administration agrees with the need to control costs and the overall size of government. But she said the bill presents operational problems and also raises philosophical questions about the roles of the Legislature and executive branch.

“It’s OK to have these kinds of discussions but at the end of the day if someone is going to get (laid off) on July 1 that’s kind of extreme,” Johnston said.

“Maybe instead of getting into the minutiae of a position here and a position there, maybe you set a ceiling and force us to stay within it,” she said.

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz said the state can’t afford to keep expanding its government. Nathan Eagle/Civil Beat

Dela Cruz, who chairs the Ways and Means Committee, said he’s open to a compromise with House leaders, such as allowing short-term hires for 90 days or less.

It’s uncertain how the bill might affect people currently employed in such positions. Of the 450 full-time positions created using the exemption, roughly one-third were budgeted, according to the Department of Human Resources Development.

Maj. Gen. Arthur Logan, the adjutant general, said one-fourth of the state Defense Department’s 113 positions would be affected, including 18 involved with disaster preparedness.

Espinda said the bill’s passage would “dramatically reduce” the amount of federal funds brought into the state. He said rapid approvals to establish and fill grant-funded positions are essential to securing and expending federal funds, which are often awarded when the Legislature is not in session.

Department of Transportation Director Jade Butay said his department has used that flexibility to hire people for projects ranging from homeless sweeps under highways to harbor modernization and airport improvements.

Sometimes the temporary positions become permanent, but only with the Legislature’s approval.

As of now, the bill’s effective date would be July 1. No hearing has been set yet in the House.

Ige’s office declined to comment Monday, pointing instead to the Budget and Finance Department’s written testimony.

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Below is the written testimony that state departments submitted at the Feb. 23 hearing before the Ways and Means Committee. It includes a breakdown showing what positions would be affected.

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