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Hawaii state agencies in an uproar as budget eliminates hundreds of positions

  • COURTESY PHOTO
                                <strong>“I think the biggest problem is nobody has been able to justify why this fund has an accrued balance of $50 million.”</strong>
                                <strong>Sylvia Luke</strong>
                                <em>The House finance chairwoman speaking about the Tobacco Prevention and Control Trust Fund</em>

    COURTESY PHOTO

    “I think the biggest problem is nobody has been able to justify why this fund has an accrued balance of $50 million.”

    Sylvia Luke

    The House finance chairwoman speaking about the Tobacco Prevention and Control Trust Fund

State agencies were in an uproar Monday as they fought to reinstate funding for hundreds of government positions and hold onto tens of millions of dollars squirreled away in special funds that normally fall outside of the legislative budget process.

When Hawaii’s House of Representatives passed its version of the state budget last week, it filled a massive budget hole by plugging in federal stimulus funds. But that wasn’t enough to restore all the cuts outlined in Gov. David Ige’s proposed budget. So House leaders eliminated 800 government positions that were classified as vacant, bringing in another $76 million in available funding, and tapped about $150 million from special funds with unspent balances, including $50 million dedicated to tobacco prevention.

The extra $226 million in state funds, coupled with $1.6 billion in federal aid, helped House leaders restore proposed cuts to a long list of government services and programs, such as Hawaii’s Sex Abuse Treatment Center, HIV services, reproductive health care, tuberculosis prevention and the protection of sea urchins.

But the Senate Ways and Means Committee listened Monday to several hours of testimony about why those budgetary maneuverings would be detrimental to programs throughout state government and eliminate dozens of jobs that are currently filled.

“When we saw the changes, we felt like the sky was falling,” Daintry Bartoldus, executive administrator for the State Council on Developmental Disabilities, told lawmakers during the Senate hearing. She and other disability advocates worry the budget slashes caseworkers assigned to assist residents with intellectual and developmental disabilities.

State Attorney General Clare Connors said 41 positions that are slated to be eliminated within her department would jeopardize her office’s ability to “perform its statutory functions” and draw down federal funds.

The proposed state budget would also cut 145 positions within the state Department of Human Services, including 47 positions within the division that provides needy residents with assistance with food, shelter and child care.

Another 136 positions within the Department of Education totaling $8.6 million, including special-education assistants, administrative support positions and building maintenance jobs, also would be eliminated.

The governor’s office said that its eight policy staff positions would be eliminated, all of which are filled except for one, in which a job offer is pending.

Those are just some of the proposed position cuts. The Legislature is also looking to raid the balances of 81 special funds that are dedicated to a wide assortment of government functions and programs, such as driver’s education, energy security, community health centers, land conservation and milk regulation.

The most controversial reduction has been to the Tobacco Prevention and Control Trust Fund. Lawmakers are looking to eliminate the fund altogether and reallocate its $50 million balance to general fund programs. The most recent hearing on the proposal attracted 167 pages of testimony from health care organizations and tobacco prevention organizations, nearly all of it in opposition, an exception being the Hawaii Smokers Alliance, which argued the fund was a “black hole” with little accountability.

The Department of Health testified that the proposal would devastate the state’s tobacco prevention and quit-smoking programs, which are funded by tobacco company profits.

Lawmakers say they aren’t looking to dismantle the tobacco prevention programs. They would still fund those programs through a $5.7 million general fund appropriation, but just want the fund’s balance of unallocated funds.

“I think the biggest problem is nobody has been able to justify why this fund has an accrued balance of $50 million,” said House Finance Chairwoman Sylvia Luke. “That should be troubling to any taxpayer.”

Luke said that that the House compiles its list of vacant positions from government agencies, and if there are positions slated for elimination that are currently filled, then lawmakers will work to restore them. But she also expressed concerns that state agencies are using funds allocated to specific positions to cover the salaries of other workers, creating confusion and obfuscation within the budget process.

The House has slated hundreds of vacant positions for elimination in past years, forcing departments to justify why they need them. Luke said this year seemed like a good time to tap those funds because there is currently a state hiring freeze.

Ige’s office said there is currently no plan to lift that hiring freeze, though departments can seek a waiver if they need to fill what they believe is a critical position.

The budget will continue to be debated within the Senate before both chambers enter final negotiations.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz said that he will likely support many of the House cuts, including the tobacco fund, as a means of providing a balanced budget. “In order to close the budget, we are definitely going to need that $50 million,” he said of the tobacco money.

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