In Hawaii, everyone is struggling. You don’t have to be an economist to know that the cost of living has already sent many residents packing for the mainland, or that many locals work multiple jobs just to make ends meet.

We have repeatedly heard that teachers in particular struggle to stay in their profession because of insufficient pay, job-related expenses they personally shoulder, and exorbitant costs of rent or home prices. The Legislature started the 2020 session with promises that teachers would get help tackling the cost of living, but so far, it seems as though these promises are all talk.

While legislators often wring their hands over how difficult it is to lower the cost of living in Hawaii, the only “difficulty” that really exists is political willpower. One of the fastest ways to lower the costs of living for teachers is simply to lower their costs by reducing their tax burden.

As it stands, several bills have already been introduced at the State Capitol that would help teachers, both 2019 carryovers and current 2020 session measures, but they haven’t yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Veteran teacher Kat Muranaka instructs a class at Waianae High School’s teacher academy. Could providing tax relief for educators make teaching more attractive?

Noelle Fujii/Civil Beat

The Keiki Caucus’s House Bill 2051, introduced by Rep. John Mizuno, along with its Senate companion, Senate Bill 2455, introduced by Sen. Russell Ruderman, proposes to give a $500 per year tax credit for the purchase of classroom supplies. This credit, which would apply to K-12 teachers in public, charter and private schools within their first three years of employment, would be a five-year program, subject to a sunset provision.

As yet, neither bill has been scheduled for a hearing.

In 2019, Republican Rep. Val Okimoto introduced a similar measure, House Bill 891, which both the Department of Education and Hawaii State Teachers Association offered favorable comments on when heard by the House Lower and Higher Education Committee, but the measure stalled when House Finance did not hear the bill. As a carryover measure, HB 891 can still be heard by the Finance Committee at any time this session, giving this proposal a chance to still become a reality for teachers.

While $500 may not seem like much, for teachers purchasing supplies out of their own pockets the additional money could make a big difference in having food, medicine, rent, or even having extra money to pay for gas.

As the Department of Education told the LHE committee a year ago in official testimony, “Efforts to use the state tax code to offset expenses paid by teachers to support their classrooms would complement the Department’s efforts to increase teacher recruitment and retention through various initiatives, and get more resources into the classroom.”

Okimoto also offered another measure last year that carried over to 2020, House Bill 1226, which would have significantly increased the refundable food/excise tax credit for persons making less than $50,000. Though this did not directly target educators, it would certainly put even more money back into the hands of struggling teachers. This bill also has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

Ironically, while some might suppose that tax credits don’t get much traction because it might starve the State of Hawaii of vital revenues needed to operate government, on the opposite end of the policy spectrum, bills to increase taxes on behalf of teachers haven’t gone far, either.

The highly-controversial House Bill 2671, introduced by House Speaker Scott Saiki to permit the Board of Education to raise property taxes to fund teacher salaries, has not moved in committees, even though it was lauded at the beginning of session as a means to address teacher recruitment and retention.

The question one has to ask when looking at the big picture of teachers and cost of living in Hawaii is how serious are our elected officials about really making a difference in this area?

While powerful unions like the HSTA have pushed for decades on behalf of teachers, how much bang are their members actually getting for their union’s endorsements when it comes to representation by state leaders?

It has long been a tradition of government that persons who engage in activities that are deemed vital to the state or essential as a public good are afforded certain exemptions which make their service worthwhile. One of the best examples of this in our modern-day government is how the U.S. military provides to service members tax-free shopping at commissaries to acquire food.

So why can’t the Legislature give teachers a meager $500 tax credit for school supplies? In fact, if it were me, I would suggest that public school teachers should pay no taxes at all when shopping for food or supplies, because they are doing important work on behalf of the State of Hawaii.

And while I know some might find the possibility of an entire group not paying taxes terrifying, I have to ask, which is worse for the economy: raising taxes on everyone to pay for teachers, or lowering taxes on teachers to pay for themselves?

If we really care about teachers in Hawaii, legislators need to back that with action this session. No more dilly-dallying. Give our educators the money they need so they can give our keiki the knowledge they need to succeed.

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