Sunday, November 22, 2009

Rescind education budget restrictions

The following opinion was published in The Honolulu Advertiser on November 22, 2009:

By Rep. Marcus Oshiro, Chair
House Finance Committee

It was heartening to learn last Sunday of a possible solution coming from the governor's office rather than a steady stream of "it's not our fault." The recent announcement that the governor would support using the rainy day fund — also known as the Emergency and Budget Reserve Fund — to pay for teacher furloughs is a positive development. The governor gets an "A" for effort. Now the proverbial devil is in the details.

However, there is a more immediate and transparent solution to pay for any portion of the furlough days. The governor has the power to rescind her restriction on money already appropriated to the Department of Education. The current restriction is $134 million for FY 2010 (Governor's Executive Memorandum 09-05; dated Aug. 20, 2009). Rescinding a restriction does not require a special session of the Legislature and more delays. All it requires is a memo from the governor. Once executed, she demonstrates her commitment to finding additional funds and that should bring the teachers, BOE, and superintendent back to the bargaining table to fix the problem. If getting the children back to school is the No. 1 priority, then cuts can and will be made to other programs and services in state government. There is no free lunch.

The governor's current solution involves spending about $50 million to cover furloughs for both fiscal years 2010 and 2011. But the immediate need is to find money to pay for the furlough days through June 2010. Based on the governor's proposal, this would require about $18 million to $25 million of the $134 million restriction being imposed on the DOE. A more thorough discussion of the furlough days for fiscal year 2011 can occur during the regular session. Likewise, the pros and cons of proposed amendments to the "rainy day" fund.

The governor's proposal to use the entire "rainy day" fund is not new. She proposed the same idea a year ago when she sought to use it to balance the 2009 budget. The fiscal crisis was bad and getting worse, and prudence dictated other alternatives. As a result, the Legislature came up with the option of transferring $97 million from about 20 special funds instead of using the "rainy day" fund to balance the 2009 budget.

Although the Legislature disagreed with using the "rainy day" fund to balance the 2009 budget, a portion was eventually used to fund critical adult mental health services in the Department of Health and the operations of the Hawai'i Health Systems Corp. The sentiment to use $8 million to pay for mental health services statewide and $14 million for hospitals especially on Hawai'i, Maui, and Kaua'i, was so great that using the fund for these programs received strong bi-partisan support and unanimous approval.

The "rainy day" fund was, literally, the last place we went to make critical funding decisions, which was more a responsible and responsive approach.

Other more immediate alternatives to using the "rainy day" fund are available. Consider the following:

• Already 95 schools have taken action to restore teaching days and more schools are filing petitions under the BOE's extended deadline to craft their own solutions.
• Hawai'i Education Matters, a group of concerned parents, has an innovative idea for substituting non-instructional hours with teaching hours that could be a win–win solution for everyone. The proposal would require a renegotiation of contracts, but it is a textbook example of what anthropologist Margaret Mead expressed regarding a small group of thoughtful people coming up with creative options.
• The governor already has the authority to transfer money from other special funds.
• The governor can rescind her budget restriction that created the furlough days in the first place.

I'm not opposed to a special session — it simply may not be necessary. No delays. No waiting for the Legislature to pass a bill. No unnecessary spending of taxpayer dollars for a special session. If the goal is to end the furlough days as quickly as possible, a one-page memo from the governor can release or transfer the money needed to end schools furlough today.

State Rep. Marcus Oshiro is chairman of the House Finance Committee. He wrote this commentary for The Advertiser.

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