The Hawaii Legislature and the county councils are all struggling with enormous budget deficits this year. Elected officials are actually considering multiple job-killing tax increases to close these fiscal gaps, but we have heard nothing about the elephant in the room — civil service reform.
About 70 percent of the cost of running the state and each of the county governments goes to wages and benefits. The cost of running government in Hawaii has become far greater than what our local residents can afford.
The last time Hawaii had a real conversation about reforming the civil service system was in 1999, led by then-Democratic Gov. Ben Cayetano. Cayetano understood that if Hawaii wants to continue its generous social programs over the long term, the only way we can possibly afford to do so would be to reform and modernize Hawaii’s antiquated administration of public employees.
Sadly, almost all of Cayetano’s proposals were voted down by a Legislature more afraid of the public employee unions than the long-term fiscal health of our community.
Those few meager reforms that were enacted were reversed in subsequent years when the public employee unions brought their political muscle to bear at the elections and picked off all of the few pro-reform legislators, one by one.
Today, state governments around the nation are confronting the need to reform their civil service systems that were largely crafted in the mid-20th century. Although Republican governors across the nation are pushing for civil service reform, even in Democrat-controlled states like New York and California, reforming civil service is being actively discussed. Democrats like former Washington, D.C., school chancellor Michelle Rhee and President Barack Obama’s education secretary, Arne Duncan, are actually the most forceful advocates for reforming the civil service system in public education.
Only in Hawaii, with one-party rule and elections dictated by the powerful government labor unions, are our politicians in denial about the pressing need for meaningful reform.
Hawaii needs a more flexible and dynamic personnel system for government workers, and here are some proposals addressing that need:
» Shift the generous public employee retirement system away from a defined- benefit pension structure to a defined-contribution system similar to a 401(k) plan, as virtually every private company in Hawaii has already done.
» Privatize more, so government can contract with businesses to provide public services to the people where it saves money.
» Reform the rigid seniority system and give managers greater flexibility to dismiss underperforming employees, but also give bonuses to star public servants.
» End duplication of services in areas ranging from road maintenance to economic development.
» Let county governments negotiate the wages and benefits for their own employees and not be required to sign the exact same union contracts as the state government.
These are common-sense reforms that could save taxpayer money and still provide vital services to our community.
As you file your taxes this month, consider that the Legislature and county councils are balancing their budgets with your money. Without long-term reform to our civil service system, however, it will only be a function of time before Hawaii will land in yet another fiscal crisis and your government will take still more of your hard-earned wages.
As long as Hawaii’s elected officials are more afraid of the public employee unions than your family, Hawaii residents will just have to watch as the rest of the nation moves forward on reform.