Hawaii Legislature Failed To Address UH Priorities - Honolulu Civil Beat

About the Author

Amy Perruso

Amy Perruso is an educator who represents House District 46 (Wahiawa, Whitmore Village, Launani Valley) in the Hawaii Legislature.

There is a troubling pattern of some legislators trying to  erode the university’s constitutional autonomy.

As chair of the House Committee on Higher Education, I voted “no” on this year’s budget bill because it left Hawaii’s public university system operating nearly in the red in a year of tremendous surplus, at a time when we pay lip service to the idea of stopping the brain drain and keeping our young people here in Hawaii.

The University of Hawaii plays a critical role in Hawaii’s future, but it is the only department or agency where Covid cuts were not restored, despite the fact that the restoration of public funding levels to the university system was the top legislative priority for UH this year.

But the failure to address the university’s priorities in this year’s budget reflects a deeper and more troubling pattern in which certain legislators have sought to erode the University’s constitutional autonomy through a budget process that is increasingly opaque.

For context, in 2000, the public voted overwhelmingly in support of a constitutional amendment to grant the university autonomy — ensuring that the institution would have control and self-governance in matters involving its internal structure, management, and operation. In other words, the public voted to guarantee the university the power to manage itself in relation to its overall educational mission and strategic vision.

As part of its self-governance process, UH goes through a budget process that is largely bottom-up. Each campus’ leadership solicits ideas and generates a list of requests to be included in the Board of Regents’ budget request to the governor. This process is meant to ensure that budget priorities reflect the needs of those working on the ground at each UH campus.

However, the way in which the final budget for the UH system is determined is becoming less collaborative and transparent, and more top-down and legislatively determined, even as legislators use the legal “autonomy” of the university as a rationalization for failing to fund its needs.

This year, the budget bill failed to fund the extension of the Hawaii Promise program — a top UH priority that would have cost only $12.3 million and benefited thousands of Hawaii students. It also failed to provide just $3.2 million to fund women’s athletics, potentially violating Title IX in the process.

Perhaps even more troubling: The Legislature is not simply failing to fund the university. Instead, legislators are ignoring the university’s priority requests and funding their own pet projects.

This is especially apparent in the budget allocations for capital improvement projects. This year, the BOR requested $100 million for repairs and maintenance for the UH system and $25 million for repairs and maintenance at the community colleges. What they received in the final budget bill was $35 million for R&M for the entire system — a $65 million shortfall — and $85 million to the community colleges — a full $50 million more than requested.

This distortion of CIP allocations is extremely problematic because the square footage of the property that is being maintained by the system is twice that maintained by all the community colleges combined, and the number of students being served by the four year universities in the system is increasing fairly dramatically while enrollment at the community colleges is steadily declining.

‘Concerning Pattern’

Alarmingly, the community college CIP budget allocation includes about $35 million in a R&M slush fund that community college leadership says was unsolicited, but was made available to them by the chair of the Senate Ways and Means Committee with little conversation about its specific purpose.

Rep. Amy Perruso speaking with House leaders on the final day of the 2023 session, where there was serious debate over the passing of the state budget. (David Croxford/Civil Beat/2023)

This reflects a concerning pattern in which powerful legislators try to micromanage the work of the university, manipulating them into building particular projects (e.g., Center for Workforce Development) that are of utility to the legislator but are not part of the UH mission, vision or purpose as defined and outlined by the Board of Regents. That is not autonomy — that is political appropriation of the resources of a nominally autonomous institution to do one’s bidding.

In contrast, important bills that were developed in collaboration with the University of Hawaii were modified at the final hour in a manner that turned them into unfunded mandates from the Legislature.

For instance, the funding sources for House Bill 554 and Senate Bill 1586 were changed from A Funds (general funds) to B Funds (tuition and fees special fund) on the day of the “cattle call,” so that the students themselves will be made to pay for these important improvements to campus safety and the work of the College of Tropical Agriculture and Human Resources.

We, as legislators, are doing so much more harm than good.

The university had testified in support of these measures with the understanding that they would receive appropriations to carry them out. Instead, they are being forced to either use tuition dollars that have largely already been accounted for, or to request that these measures are vetoed. In either case, students lose.

I appreciate the need to strike a balance between autonomy and accountability for the university. But the current situation is one in which legislators with no experience running a institute of higher education are trying to simultaneously micromanage the university and punish its leadership for their refusal to be complicit in such legislative overreach.

UH has had such difficulty at the Legislature in the past five years or so that its internal governance system is starting to fray and system leadership is less able to fund its new strategic plan and vision. The reality is, we, as legislators, are doing so much more harm than good, and it is time we change our ways.

Community Voices aims to encourage broad discussion on many topics of community interest. It’s kind of a cross between Letters to the Editor and op-eds. This is your space to talk about important issues or interesting people who are making a difference in our world. Column lengths should be no more than 800 words and we need a photo of the author and a bio. We welcome video commentary and other multimedia formats. Send to news@civilbeat.org. The opinions and information expressed in Community Voices are solely those of the authors and not Civil Beat.

Read this next:

Denby Fawcett: Diamond Head's Reservation System Has Led To Fewer Rescues On The Trail

Local reporting when you need it most

Support timely, accurate, independent journalism.

Honolulu Civil Beat is a nonprofit organization, and your donation helps us produce local reporting that serves all of Hawaii.


About the Author

Amy Perruso

Amy Perruso is an educator who represents House District 46 (Wahiawa, Whitmore Village, Launani Valley) in the Hawaii Legislature.

Latest Comments (0)

Good column. Hope Sen. Donna Mercado Kim reads this because it hits the nail on the head. The legislators need to allow UH to set their funding priorities- not vice versa as Ms. Kim and her ilk would like.

kbaybaby · 2 months ago

Kudos to Representative Perruso for her courageous views on the awful workings of our legislature! Continue your great work as we, the ordinary folks of Hawaii, support you 100%! Mahalo & Aloha!

taisho · 2 months ago

I have to disagree, what UH wants is to have their cake and eat it too. When UH was left to their own devices, they only hired from a small pool of applicants ("Friends"). Totally mismanaged Mauna Kea, gave their boards obscene pay increases, yet their employees and faculty barely have enough to survive. They would never scour the globe to hire first class, Poets, Writers, Physicist, Astronomers, Engineers, Economist from around the globe whose duties are to produce, and publish. Their research is always in conjunction with other Universities. UH acts like its a money farm for a small group of "friends". When things like these are questioned by Kim, UH get's defensive. KIm whether you agree with her or not, is questioning what is questionable. She is doing her job! UH is a PUBLIC institution. Therefore it falls under the guidance of the legislature (The People) You want to go it alone? Then go at it alone. Don't ask for my money, then only hire your friends and give yourself's hefty wage increases. It cut's both ways. You can cut men's sports to fulfill title IX. The money you received can start the repairs needed...You don't need it all at once.

TheMotherShip · 2 months ago

Join the conversation


IDEAS is the place you'll find essays, analysis and opinion on every aspect of life and public affairs in Hawaii. We want to showcase smart ideas about the future of Hawaii, from the state's sharpest thinkers, to stretch our collective thinking about a problem or an issue. Email news@civilbeat.org to submit an idea.


You're officially signed up for our daily newsletter, the Morning Beat. A confirmation email will arrive shortly.

In the meantime, we have other newsletters that you might enjoy. Check the boxes for emails you'd like to receive.

  • What's this? Be the first to hear about important news stories with these occasional emails.
  • What's this? You'll hear from us whenever Civil Beat publishes a major project or investigation.
  • What's this? Get our latest environmental news on a monthly basis, including updates on Nathan Eagle's 'Hawaii 2040' series.
  • What's this? Get occasional emails highlighting essays, analysis and opinion from IDEAS, Civil Beat's commentary section.

Inbox overcrowded? Don't worry, you can unsubscribe
or update your preferences at any time.