Although Gov. David Ige has not made a decision yet to impose furloughs on state workers, some of Hawaii’s public workers unions are intent on killing the proposal before it ever gets going.
In the past week, Ige has met privately with those union leaders as well as House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi to discuss a possible 20% pay cut for workers in the state.
Lawmakers along with heads of the Hawaii Government Employees Association and the Hawaii State Teachers Association joined a growing chorus of public workers in the state calling on Ige to look to other areas of the state budget before cutting workers’ pay.
“Although Governor Ige has the unilateral authority to impose furloughs and salary cuts, we do not agree with such action,” Saiki and Kouchi said in a statement. “We urge the Governor to obtain better data and analysis before he makes this decision.”
Ige said those cuts won’t come yet, and that he is exploring other options — although he provided almost no details on what those options might be in a press conference Wednesday.
He also announced that he and his cabinet would also take pay cuts if furloughs are imposed on state workers.
The state is projecting hundreds of millions of dollars in lost tax revenue as a result of the tourism downturn. Ige said Wednesday that the state may need to shave $1.5 billion off the state’s $16 billion budget over the next six months.
But it still has other options to save money. And in December, state officials reported a carryover balance of over $600 million from last fiscal year.
Hawaii is poised to receive nearly $10 million in a federal bailout through the CARES Act to support education during the coronavirus crisis.
Although Saiki and Kouchi oppose the pay cuts, they said the Legislature will still work with Ige on balancing the budget.
“Although we disagree with Governor Ige’s proposal, the Legislature will work with him to assess and pursue all options,” they said in a written statement.
State lawmakers were already looking for places to save money once the pandemic struck.
“I think we need to exhaust other options first,” Senate Ways and Means Chair Donovan Dela Cruz said Wednesday. “Cut some of those programs that are no longer useful.”
Dela Cruz said the state could also look to tap certain special funds that have accrued over the years. He also suggested Ige wait for federal money earmarked for helping states to come in.
Lawmakers were considering eliminating certain tax credits that go unused to free up some funds.
Dela Cruz said he hopes the governor takes this as an opportunity to change the way the government does business. With both public and private sector employees working from home, Dela Cruz said it may be time for the state to consider telework options, which could save money on facility use.
“There’s got to be a way where, when we reopen government, we reopen it in a much more efficient way to provide public service,” he said.
House Finance Chair Sylvia Luke said neither she nor Dela Cruz were consulted before Ige came up with the furlough proposal. Luke noted that the state has $391 million in its rainy day fund.
“I think we need to proceed cautiously,” Luke said. “There are unemployment issues, record number of job losses. UI, NAP, Medquest claims. If there’s any time to dip into the rainy day this would be it.”
HGEA Director Randy Perreira also urged Ige to look for other places to find money or cut the budget before jumping straight to furloughs.
In a letter to the governor on Tuesday, Perreira suggested looking at money that has been budgeted for vacant positions that are still unfilled.
Perreira asked that the state forego payments to the Hawaii Employee Retirement System, and the Employee Union Health Benefit Trust Fund. On Wednesday, Ige didn’t commit to that option when asked but said he is exploring multiple options to save money.
Ige said that $868 million in federal CARES Act funding coming to Hawaii can’t be used for existing government operations, or to cover pay.
The HSTA is also coming out strongly against the cuts.
A 20% salary cut for a DOE teacher would mean a reduction of $600 to $1,800 in monthly income for educators, according to HSTA. The average teacher pay in Hawaii is $65,000.
HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said a 20% reduction in teacher salaries instituted across the board would result in cost savings of roughly $80 million a month. But funding is still pending from the federal stimulus package and with the state’s surplus and rainy day funds, any salary reduction is premature, he said.
“If we cut teacher salaries it will force teachers to retire and our new teachers to leave. We cannot open our schools if we don’t have enough teachers,” he said.
In a video conference call with reporters Wednesday, Rosenlee said he had few details on the proposed cuts to members.
“We have not been given anything written as a proposal, whether a salary cut or a furlough. They did say they would talk to us more some,” he said.
HSTA Executive Director Wilbert Holck met with the governor’s representatives Tuesday, Rosenlee said, adding the proposed cuts were “not a suggestion.”
The HSTA represents roughly 13,700 teachers and counselors statewide.
HSTA members would not be the only DOE employees affected by the proposed cuts. HGEA, the state’s largest state worker union, represents roughly 2,700 education assistants who serve as staff support to teachers as well as other DOE personnel like administrators and principals.
Rosenlee first sounded the alarm in a letter email blast circulated to teachers late Tuesday night, in which he said Hawaii’s public sector unions had “received ominous news” from the Ige administration.
The letter communicated the governor’s intention to implement a 20% salary cut for most public sector employees including teachers, and a 10% cut for first responders like nurses, police officers and firefighters.
“This is unacceptable,” Rosenlee said in the letter, a copy of which was provided to Civil Beat. “We believe cutting salaries for tens of thousands of state workers is rash and will hurt our state even more.”
The state is already contending with a teacher shortage. Starting this year, the DOE began offering pay differentials to the hardest to retain teachers: those in special education, Hawaiian immersion and who are based in remote, rural areas.
The pay bumps, which ranged from an additional $3,000 to $10,000 yearly, will be untouched the rest of this school year, given they were budgeted into the DOE’s current fiscal year budget, which ends June 30, said Board of Education chairwoman Catherine Payne.
DOE officials had been lobbying for additional legislative funding to continue those pay differentials into the 2020-21 school year and beyond before session was abruptly cut short due to coronavirus.
“We’re not anticipating any change through the end of the school year for our teachers — they’re still working, they’re just working in a different way,” said Payne.
During Thursday’s HSTA call, several educators spoke about how a pay cut could devastate their futures. Dana Shishido, a third grade teacher at Wheeler Elementary and 30-year DOE veteran, said she would consider an early retirement.
Jodi Kunimitsu, a math teacher at Maui High, said the difference in the pay cut for her would be equivalent to the cost of her son’s childcare.
“It always seems the budget is trying to be balanced on the backs of the most essential workers,” she said.
The last time the state imposed furloughs was during the 2009 economic crisis. Then-Gov. Linda Lingle imposed 24 Furlough Fridays for state workers starting June 2009, including 17 days of Furlough Fridays for DOE teachers which lasted nearly an entire school year, from October 2009 to May 2010.
Lawmakers who work on education issues are also concerned about cuts to teacher and staff pay.
House Rep. Amy Perruso, a teacher at Mililani High who represents Wahiawa, said this move was “really premature” and reflected “unbelievably poor leadership.”
“It’s just ridiculous, unless their intention is to actually gut state government,” she said. “I don’t think they really have a sense of what our financial situation will look like. We haven’t seen all those monies flow into state coffers yet.”
Rep. Justin Woodson, chair of the House Lower and Higher Education committee, said there had been informal conversations in the Legislature on mitigation to deal with a potentially double-digit percent loss in state revenue due to the economic hit. One of those tools included furloughs, he said.
“We should attempt to look for other avenues before cutting pay,” he said. “Education shouldn’t be looked at as a first option.”
During this unique election season, we appreciate that you and others like you have relied on Civil Beat for accurate, objective coverage of the candidates and their races.
Covering the pandemic has taken a lot of our collective energy. But through it all, our small team of reporters made sure you didn’t forget about electoral politics. Because we know that elections not only test society’s participation in our democracy, but journalism’s commitment to safeguarding it.
If you’ve relied on our election coverage this season, please consider making a tax-deductible gift to support our newsroom.