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State departments urge Senate to restore vacant positions

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    Hawaii Senate Committee on Ways and Means Chairman David Ige leads a hearing on Wednesday, February 27, 2013 at the Hawaii State Capitol in Honolulu. (AP Photo/Anita Hofschneider)

Heads of Hawaii state departments are urging lawmakers to reverse the state House’s decision to cut more than 900 vacant positions from department budgets.

The Senate Ways and Means Committee is meeting today to hear testimony about the House’s $23.25 billion biennial budget draft, which falls about $590 million short of Gov. Neil Abercrombie’s request. 

The House proposal adds funding for various positions and programs at state departments but removes funding for hundreds of positions that have been vacant for two years or more. 

Lawmakers are facing backlash from state department heads who say the cuts are indiscriminate and harmful.

“You are always going to see a certain percentage of vacancies in each department,” Barbara Krieg, director of Department of Human Resources Development, told senators on Tuesday. “Simply looking at an across-the-board date or percentage doesn’t take into account the needs from every department.”

The departments of natural resources, public safety, human resources and health each stand to lose funding for more than 100 positions. The exact amount of the potential funding loss was not yet available.

House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke has said the committee chose to remove funding for vacancies to increase fiscal transparency because departments have been using the money for purposes such as vacation buyouts.

But Krieg argues that the length of time that a position is empty isn’t a reflection of how important it is.  She says many employees take over the responsibilities of vacant positions which may provide critical services.

Several department heads told senators that some positions that were removed are in the process of being filled or have already been filled by temporary employees.

Dwight Takamine, head of the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations, says that more than 80 percent of the department’s budget relies on federal funding. He says the House’s move to slice just 11 positions will have strong ramifications in light of looming federal cuts.

Members of the executive branch also prodded the Senate to fund the governor’s highly publicized new preschool program and innovation initiative. 

The Department of Business, Economic Development and Tourism testified that Waikiki is running out of hotel rooms and that Abercrombie’s so-called HI Growth Initiative is needed to help the business community keep pace with growth.  

Executive Office of Early Learning Director Terry Lock urged lawmakers to appreciate the importance of early childhood development and the potential benefits of a school readiness program.

Luke has said that the House Finance Committee did not include any funding in the initial budget draft for proposals that have yet to pass the Legislature, including collective bargaining appropriations.

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