There’s something eerily familiar about the sense of doom arising from last week’s round of budget-cutting discussions, reminiscent of the dark recessionary days of more than a decade ago.
Except that these days are darker, the collapse is deeper and scarier, and the state is contemplating cuts that are far more devastating than what prompted the “Furlough Fridays” crisis of 2009.
And though it’s hard to imagine how one closes a billion-dollar budgetary hole like this one without some shared pain all around, what’s missing is the full-fledged and open debate, with room for public input, over which path out of the fiscal mess would create the least damage.
The surprising difference was that the political clash between the lawmakers and the governor’s office was just as bloody as when the two branches were held by opposing parties — perhaps even worse this time around.
At the time, the $185 million budget gap Gov. Linda Lingle faced when ordering mandatory furloughs seemed daunting enough. And when the recession continued, her successor, Gov. Neil Abercrombie, cut $100 million from a biennium budget.
Those challenges pale, however, next to the $1.5 billion shortfall Gov. David Ige projected for the 15 months remaining in the current budget. Today’s broad business shutdown ordered to protect public health has prompted a precipitous slide in revenues, and not a long period over which to spread them.
However, when last week a proposal to cut most public worker salaries by 20% became public, all hell broke loose. The first salvo of return fire came from organized labor, especially the Hawaii State Teachers Association.
In talks the Ige administration held with the unions, a shallower 10% cut was proposed for first responders, such as police officers, firefighters, nurses and emergency medical technicians, according to a letter HSTA President Corey Rosenlee distributed to his union members.
Those are indeed workers on the front lines of the coronavirus pandemic, and some relief for these essential workers is critically important.
A 20% cut would be hard across the civil-service board, but such a deep drop in teachers’ salaries would be an outcome that’s indefensibly punishing. Rosenlee has been a vociferous advocate for improving teacher pay rates for several years and termed this proposal “unacceptable.”
He has a point. Classroom teachers have been chronically underpaid in Hawaii, where the high cost of living has made it difficult to retain these professionals in the state’s public schools. The state can little afford to depress working conditions further, because it already has an shortage of teachers.
Further, resumption of classroom schedules is key to implementing any return-to-business blueprint the state develops, and teachers are vital in that.
Still, there is a $1.5 billion budgetary chasm to bridge, and some measure of shared sacrifice is unavoidable. This is why devising a shared plan that explores all alternatives is a crucial task, one in which the Legislature must have a hand. A more surgical approach to revising the state budget is needed, and some of that work falls to elected representatives statewide.
Unfortunately, there seems to be little productive communication, so far, between the executive and legislative branches on how to make this work. On Friday, in fact, there was an outright uprising from the state Senate Ways and Means Committee leadership, especially its chairman, state Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz.
Taking the brunt of the protest was Linda Chu Takayama, the governor’s chief of staff; Dela Cruz angrily told her that he was contemplating “a vote of no-confidence in your ability.”
Members argued — rightly — that the administration should provide more unfiltered information from the departmental spending plans. Time is short for finding solutions, and lawmakers should be involved in setting the spending priorities. The public itself needs to have a voice in this decisionmaking process, as well.
Takayama said the administration is reviewing the raw numbers for places where cuts could be made, but state Sen. Kurt Fevella, the chamber’s lone Republican member, took issue with that. Takayama and all the department heads are appointed, he said, and don’t speak for the public.
“They didn’t elect you, Linda, they elected us,” he said.
That’s exactly right. The decisions on how to patch together a budgetary rescue are complex. The federal CARES Act includes funds but, Takayama said, it can’t cover salary costs. There is hope that Congress will come through with less restrictive relief for the states, and that would give leaders more options.
But while that package is still taking shape, the conversation about salary cuts, furloughs or other potential savings from public programs must bring the public, and their representatives, to the table.