Court challenges will likely mean that planned furloughs of thousands of state workers will not happen beginning Jan. 1, state Senate President Ron Kouchi said Monday.
“We’re not sure that the furloughs will be implemented on Jan. 1,” Kouchi told the Honolulu Star-Advertiser’s Spotlight Hawaii video web program. “I think it’ll be tied up in litigation, and so we’re preparing to try to find other solutions that wouldn’t involve the furloughs because of the possibility that we wouldn’t prevail in a court case.”
The two-days-per-month furloughs of more than 10,000 state workers — coupled with different furlough schedules for thousands of Department of Education and University of Hawaii employees — would affect instructional days for students and hamper state operations just as a nationwide vaccine promises to help kick-start Hawaii’s struggling economy in the new year, Kouchi said.
“As the economy starts to come back, we need our people in the bureaucracy who are processing the paperwork,” such as real estate conveyance tax transactions and property recordings, he said.
In response to a request from the Star-Advertiser, Gov. David Ige did not directly respond to a question about promised legal challenges to the furloughs by Hawaii’s public workers unions.
The Hawaii Government Employees Association — Hawaii’s largest public workers union — and the Hawaii State Teachers Association said their contracts with the state have no furlough clauses, although layoffs are allowed.
In an email to the Star- Advertiser on Saturday about the possibility of legal challenges, Ige wrote:
“We are working to minimize the impact of this budget crisis on employees. We estimate that we would have to lay off more than 4,000 employees to generate the savings equal to two furlough days per month as proposed. Layoffs of this magnitude will be more devastating to our economy and our state employees than furloughs.”
In announcing the upcoming furloughs last week, Ige said they are intended to save $300 million annually at a time when the state is forecast to come up $1.4 billion short in each of the next four years because of the economic hit from COVID-19.
Kouchi expressed optimism Monday that there could be a combination of other ways to avoid furloughs for state workers, such as:
>> A second round of federal COVID-19-related funding currently being negotiated in Congress that could help counties and states. Ige said last week that the current federal funding, which expires in two weeks, can be used only for COVID-19 costs and specifically prohibits it from being used to make up for budget shortfalls.
>> The rollout of the new COVID-19 vaccine that could open up travel to the islands and fire up a Hawaii economy that was breaking records right before the pandemic hit.
>> Freezing state jobs after employees retire. Ige previously announced that the state is freezing 3,000 “noncritical” job vacancies.
>> The possibility of higher taxes on people who earn $200,000 and more and rescinding unidentified tax exemptions.
“There are really few people that you would want to increase taxes on during this time,” Kouchi said. “We’re hopeful that we’ll have other options that would be available to us.”
In a joint statement to the Star-Advertiser on Monday, the leaders of the HGEA, HSTA, United Public Workers and University of Hawaii Public Assembly said:
“All four unions are hearing from our members about hardships that will be created if the furloughs go into effect. Teachers are already indicating that they will need to leave the islands because they just can’t make ends meet here. The concerns we have raised about economic and public service impacts are being echoed by local economists and lawmakers. Public employees understand that the economy is in crisis — they are the very people who provide the services for those in need of help — whether that is food or rent assistance, cooking meals for school children, providing a free and quality public education, an affordable higher education, providing mental health and health care in rural safety net hospitals and much, much more. We appreciate the efforts of lawmakers to find a better solution. Our members are on the front lines and see the devastation every day. Let’s not add public workers to the lists of those applying for services instead of providing them.”
Asked about the possibility of a state lottery to inject a new source of state funding, Kouchi was adamant in his opposition. Only Utah and Hawaii outlaw all forms of gambling.
“If we said, ‘Only lottery because we don’t want casinos,’ the Native American Indians could then build a casino if they wanted to,” which would exacerbate Native Hawaiian “grievances for how they have been left out and mistreated,” Kouchi said. “I just would find it incredibly difficult in our community that we would put a lottery in place, then Native Americans … would put up casinos and they would start seeing great revenue from their gaming operations and the Native Hawaiians would be left out because they’re not federally recognized and the Native Hawaiians would not have the ability to do what the Native American Indians would (be able to do), and that’s the primary reason that I have.”
Kouchi emphasized that his primary opposition to any island gambling would be “to just see that diversion grow even wider in our Native Hawaiian community, (which) is not something that I would want to be responsible for.”
The high misdemeanor penalty for not wearing a mask — a maximum $5,000 fine and a year in jail — is likely to be addressed in the next legislative session, Kouchi said.
“Certainly, that’s going to be something that we’ll take up,” he said.
But hearings have to be held before deciding whether to reduce penalties to something closer to a $100 citation.
“We need to make sure that we’re not creating a different problem,” Kouchi said.
Public access to the Capitol during the next legislative session will be determined on whether Honolulu’s COVID-19 numbers fall enough to allow Oahu to move into so-called Tier 3 levels with reduced restrictions. Oahu is currently in Tier 2, under which five people from different households can gather. Tier 3 permits 10 people to gather.
Judicial hearings earlier this year showed that live video testimony can be offered remotely, and legislators also can participate in hearings remotely and ask questions.
Capitol offices already have been outfitted with “Plexiglas sneeze guards” and hand sanitizers that dispense sanitizer without any direct contact, Kouchi said.
Half the conference room chairs have been removed to allow for social distancing, and TV monitors are ready to be placed on outside lanai to allow viewers to watch the proceedings occurring inside. Plans are underway to line up people outside until it’s their turn to testify, Kouchi said.
But Kouchi is also prepared that the Capitol will continue to remain closed to visitors.
“It seems that with the infection rates that are still coming in on Oahu that the building will likely be closed,” he said.