Legislative leaders say they still aren’t ready to sign off on $1 billion in cuts to Hawaii’s budget.

After several hearings that included testimony from state agency heads, the chairs of the Legislature’s money committees now say they need to comb through the state’s $8 billion operating budget again to make sure no positions previously thought to be vacant have actually been filled.

Axing vacant positions made up a significant part of Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and Rep. Sylvia Luke’s strategy for plugging the budget hole. That facet of the financial plan could have saved well over $200 million.

Now, the amount is up in the air while the lawmakers work with state departments to sort out which positions are filled and which are vacant.

“Only they know,” Dela Cruz said. “We cannot read their minds.”

Finance Chair Sylvia Luke and Donovan Dela Cruz Look on during county Mayors reports.
Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz and Rep. Sylvia Luke say they still need to sort out which positions set to be cut under a revised budget are actually vacant. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

House Bill 2200, the budget bill, passed a final vote in the Senate Monday morning and is set to clear the House. Dela Cruz said the legislators are looking at passing it and then making adjustments to the budget in June.

A date for when the Legislature meets again in June hasn’t been set yet.

Luke and Dela Cruz crafted the budget based on input gathered from the departments over the last few weeks. But now, according to the budget committee chairs, some of those may have since been filled or may be occupied by temporary hires.

“We’re counting on the departments’ numbers,” Luke said. “Sometimes you have to go and do much more research to see if they are actually vacant or not.”

Dela Cruz said that some of the departments responded to update the legislators on their vacancies, but others did not.

As of October, there were just over 3,000 vacant civil service positions, according to a December report from the state Department of Human Resources Development. But that doesn’t include a number of positions that may be exempt from civil service under state law.

In written testimony to the Senate Ways and Means Committee, the state Department of Budget and Finance worried that cuts this late in the fiscal year could mean departments are losing out on funds they already spent.

Others made their cases for keeping filled positions that were listed as vacant.

The state Office of Planning wants to retain a contract worker that can coordinate Hawaii’s sustainability plans with the COVID-19 recovery plan. The state Department of Health also testified that some vacant positions are actually filled but didn’t specify which ones.

Other departments, like public safety, asked to keep the funding to shore up short-staffed sections. For example, the budget proposes axing unfilled positions for adult corrections officers.

The officers on staff now, particularly at the Maui Correctional Center, have worked extra hours each week to make up for the staffing situation.

Even with those differences, the bill should still have general support from both the House and Senate.

“It’s not like it’s a lot of philosophical differences,” Dela Cruz said. “The specific positions are technical in nature.”

The Legislature also needs to work with Gov. David Ige’s administration to figure out how to pay off $600 million in debt to Bank of America that will come due next year, with the first installment due in April 2021 and the second in October 2021.

The state Department of Budget and Finance planned to sell $600 million worth of bonds to fund construction projects earlier this year. But when the markets took a nosedive, the department went looking elsewhere for revenue.

In an afternoon press conference, Ige said he is confident the state can pay that money back. The governor said the plan is to float bonds to pay off the debt.

“We will be back in the market once things settle down,” he said.

The bond sale could affect the sale of other bonds, including about $2.1 billion over two years to fund the state’s capital improvements budget.

The amount of bonds the state plans to take out could run up against the state’s debt ceiling, but Dela Cruz said during a Senate floor session that the Attorney General’s Office plans to work out technical issues that allows the administration to go above that ceiling.

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