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Editorial: Hold off for now on union raises

Normally in Hawaii politics, elected officials would do anything to avoid upsetting the public employee unions during an election year.

But there’s nothing normal about this election year, and old rules don’t apply neatly. We’re in a pandemic, something that hasn’t happened with quite this global effect in a century.

It has crushed the local economy, more so than in most other states. Thousands have been thrown into unemployment and, to cap off this miserable period, lawmakers will have a budget hole of $2.3 billion to close.

The recent move to restart tourism, encouraging as that is, will not restore lost business revenues quickly. And as the fallout from the economic effects of COVID-19 continues to mount, more jobs will be shed, and social-service needs can only increase.

This is not the right time for a pay raise — for anyone. But one such increase for public workers, which would cost the state $150 million, comes up for a final vote today with Senate Bill 785.

The raises for this fiscal year and the year that begins July 1 would be paid to nearly 29,000 state, city and county workers in a pact reached through arbitration. Most are members of the Hawaii Government Employees Association; there are employees who are nonunion but are part of the same salary/benefit schedules and would also get raises.

SB 785 also includes nearly $10.95 million to pay for raises for members of the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly; these were negotiated when the contract was reopened this year.

The other public unions with raises already slotted into the budget, to begin July 1, include the Hawaii State Teachers Association and the United Public Workers. These were negotiated years ago, the funds set aside last year before the crisis hit.

So admittedly, lawmakers are in an awkward spot: If SB 785 fails to pass, about half of state and county workers would get pay raises, and the other half would not.

Does it seem unfair, even with the pandemic?

Yes, it does.

And in Thursday’s Honolulu Star-Advertiser COVID-19 Care Conversation, Senate President Ron Kouchi noted that the employees with raises in the balance include nurses, health care employees and other “front-line” workers.

However, as unfortunate as that would be, the operative question should not be, “What is fair?” but, “What is responsible policy?”

To begin with, the financial fortunes of the state are anything but certain. There could be more losses in tax receipts, making the budget hole even bigger.

More federal aid may come to help states balance budgets, but that’s not settled. What is entirely possible is that, as revenues decline further, some union members could face furloughs themselves; the allotment of $150 million could be used to forestall some of that.

Lawmakers are eyeing a $2.1 billion federal cache to borrow from, but incurring extra debt for raises should not be the preferred course of action. This is especially so given that the legislative leadership has decided against fulfilling its pledge to increase the minimum wage. Should middle-income earners get a raise while the lowest-paid workers have to wait, again?

That’s not fair, either.

Lawmakers should at least postpone a vote on the bill until further options are explored. Waiting until the 2021 session may be wise.

Kouchi acknowledged that the Legislature is faced with competing issues that must be weighed: “We’ll all have to be accountable for the choice we make,” he added.

These legislators may not like the accounting that voters make, just four months out from Election Day.

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