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Hawai‘i Legislature passes $21.7 billion budget despite education concerns

LIHU‘E — A $21.7 billion state budget proposal passed final reading on the last day of the state Legislature’s 2023 session on Thursday after several lawmakers voiced concerns over what they perceived as an underfunding of the state’s education systems.

The budget, also known as House Bill 300, would provide appropriations for the general fund of $11.3 billion for fiscal year 2024 and $10.4 billion for fiscal year 2025. It would also include $4.2 billion in capital improvement funds through the 2024 and 2025 fiscal years — nearly $145 million of which would go toward projects on Kaua‘i, including $56 million for Lihu‘e Airport renovations and a $100,000 water system upgrade.

Rep. Kyle Yamashita (D-District 12) touted the budget’s support of a wide array of projects, from $100 million for natural resources conservation to more than $300 million for increasing affordable housing availability and supportive housing services.

“The budget strikes a responsible balance between the needs of today and building a strong foundation for tomorrow,” he said.

The bill did not pass without criticism from some legislators, however, with the majority of critiques revolving around a perceived lack of funding for the state’s educational institutions.

Rep. Sonny Ganaden (D-District 30) spoke in opposition of the proposed budget, suggesting the state’s nearly $2 billion surplus should allow them to increase investments in the state Department of Education. The approved budget provides about $60 million less in fiscal year 2024 and about $110 million less in fiscal year 2025 compared with Gov. Josh Green’s request.

“Based on this budget, there seems to be a desire to starve the Department of Education and force the department to cut teachers, principals and entire schools … there seems to be a penalty for increasing teacher pay pursuant to recent contract negotiations,” said Ganaden in referencing the new Hawai‘i State Teachers Association contract, which was approved by its members on April 26.

Under the new contract, union teachers will see minimum starting salaries increase from $38,000 to $50,000, as well as 14.5 percent raises over four years.

Rep. Amy Perruso (D-District 46), chair of the House Committee on Higher Education, took aim at budget cuts to the University of Hawai‘i system.

While the House’s proposal would have fully restored the UH system’s funding to current operating levels, changes made by the Senate significantly reduced the system’s allotments, setting UH up to be in a $1.1 million deficit by the end of fiscal year 2024.

“HB 300 would mean a massive budget shortfall for Hawai‘i’s public university system, leaving it to operate nearly in the red for this first year of tremendous surplus — which is ridiculous — at a time when we pay lip service to stopping the brain drain and keeping our young people here in Hawai‘i,” she said. “It is our most important tool for keeping our local families intact.”

Rep. Natalia Hussey-Burdick (D-District 50) also criticized what she perceived as an underfunding of primary, secondary and higher education in Hawai‘i, suggesting the Legislature extend the legislative session in order to rework the bill.

“Let me be very clear that when I vote against this budget, I’m not voting to kill the appropriation or any of the bills that come after,” she said. “I’m voting to empower the House to go back to the Senate with a message that we won’t settle for less than what our constituents deserve.”

Following the opposition’s attacks on the proposed budget, multiple legislators defended their support for its passage.

Rep. Linda Ichiyama (D-District 31) argued that funds previously allocated to the state’s educational institutions would be better used if they were spread to other state departments to promote conservation and visitor efforts.

“I hear the concerns of my colleagues about the funding for the Department of Education and the University of Hawai‘i,” Ichiyama said. “These departments take the lion’s share of our budget every year, and departments like the (Department of Land and Natural Resources) have struggled to maintain our state parks, beaches, trails — which are used most frequently by our tourist industry and become an attraction to Hawai‘i, to our benefit, I believe.”

Rep. Gregg Takayama (D-District 34) told the Legislature that while he also disagreed with certain aspects of the proposed budget, he and other legislators should be more willing to compromise.

“If every legislator in this body voted against a state budget because it contained an item they objected to, or an item that failed to be included, we would never have a budget,” he said.

The budget passed final reading with eight representatives voting in opposition, and now heads to Gov. Josh Green, who is expected to sign it into law.


Jackson Healy, reporter, can be reached at 808-647-4966 or
Source: The Garden Island

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