West Hawaii Today: “Forum talks education tax amendment pros and cons”

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HILO — Proponents both for and against a proposed constitutional amendment that aims to better fund public education debated merits of the upcoming ballot measure during a moderated panel forum Thursday at the Arc of Hilo.

Although the public didn’t have a chance to comment or ask questions of their own, dozens showed up to learn more about the measure, which will ask voters in November: “Shall the legislature be authorized to establish, as provided by law, a surcharge on investment real property to be used to support education.”

Thursday’s panel included Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association; county Real Property Tax Administrator Lisa Miura; Deborah Zysman, executive director of the Hawaii Children’s Action Network; and State Sen. Gil Riviere, an Oahu Democrat.

“I’m really delighted you’re all here because what we’re going to talk about is a potential amendment to our constitution that is a little bit complicated. All these things seem very straight forward when you look at them, but they’re not,” moderator Sherry Bracken said.

Each panel member was given approximately 10 minutes to make comments at the start of the 90-minute forum, before Bracken began asking questions.

“We are in an educational crisis right now,” Rosenlee said during his opening statement. “Just two days ago, a national story came out that ranked Hawaii as the worst place in the nation for teachers, and when you’re the worst place in the nation for teachers that has consequences.”

For the first time, Rosenlee said there are more than 1,000 classrooms without qualified teachers this year, those classes led instead by emergency hires or substitutes, and there are now some people teaching that only have a high school diploma.

“By our estimate, tomorrow, when children of Hawaii go to school, tens of thousands, nearly one-third of our students will go to school and not have a qualified teacher,” he said.

Schools are not being properly funded, said Rosenlee, who added that when adjusted for the cost of living, teachers in Hawaii are the lowest paid in the nation and the state is 45th in per-pupil spending.

Hawaii is the only state where property taxes are not used to fund schools, and the state has the lowest property taxes in the country, he said, which Rosenlee contends drives up the cost of living.

The constitution currently provides that “all functions, powers and duties relating to the taxation of real property shall be exercised exclusively by the counties, with the exception of Kalawao.”

If the amendment passes, however, the constitution would be appended to read “provided that the legislature may establish, as provided by law, a surcharge on investment real property,” and would be further amended to read “Funding of public education shall be determined by the legislature; provided that revenues derived from a surcharge on investment real property pursuant to section 3 of article VIII shall be used to support public education.”

The constitutional change leaves it up to a future Legislature to set the amount of the surcharge, define what constitutes “investment real property” and detail what would qualify to “support public education.”

Rosenlee said opponents will paint “this grim, horrible picture, that if this passes, the legislature is just going to go hog wild, they’re going to tax every single person they can.”

“We have been doing this for two years. We have had hundreds of conversations, and in that time, the only thing we have discussed were second homes over $1 million,” he said.

He also, preemptively, dismissed arguments against the amendment’s vague wording, which Rosenlee said is “supposed to be vague.”

“It’s a constitutional amendment,” Rosenlee said. “Nothing happens if this passes. It just gives the legislature the opportunity”

Miura, however, said the wording of “over $1 million” is not in the current bill.

“I get what Corey is saying,” she said. “It would have been nice, but it’s not there.”

That language was included in an early draft of Senate Bill 2922, along with language that would have permitted a surcharge on visitor accommodations, but not in the final version of the bill.

Miura also said there is nothing stating that the money raised from the proposed surcharges will get “to the teachers or kids or the classrooms,” and no guarantee that the money would get to the state Department of Education.

Among other concerns, she contended that the amendment will “affect us all” because the county’s bond rating will be affected and because the tax base could also be lowered.

During her allotted 10 minutes, Zysman said kids’ issues are future community issues.

“If we don’t have healthy children, if we don’t have well-educated children, then the community of our future won’t thrive,” she said. “We won’t have the workforce we need in the future. … That’s really why we’re here behind this measure. I think any time I am out talking to families, to parents, to grandparents, the No. 1 issue they talk about — really there’s two, that I think are linked — it’s how do we improve our schools, and how do we improve our early education.”

Zysman said the question on the ballot isn’t perfect, “because ballot questions never are, that’s the way they go, but I see it as an opportunity — as an opportunity to take a step forward on many of the things we’ve been talking about in the community for a really, really long time.”

There will be more work to be done after the matter is voted on in November, she said.

“After that, I think the real community discussion happens,” Zysman said. “This opens the door for that discussion.”

For his part, Riviere said he’s passionate about this issue because “far too often we at the legislature think the money is just out there, all we got to do is just go grab the money.”

“As they say, the road to hell is paved with the best of intentions … and I trust everybody speaking in favor of this has the best of intentions, and I believe that many of the members of the legislature hope and wish and they don’t expect to go taxing everything, but I can tell you from my first year in office in 2010-11, that we started finding additional ways to squeeze more money out of more places because we had to keep the government funded,” he said.

Among other concerns, Riviere also took issue with the vague wording of the amendment.

“What is investment property?” he asked. “It could be interpreted later to be just about anything. I could be your small mom-and-pop stores, it could mean your residential properties.”

There’s no intention of taxing small, residential houses or small business, but Riviere said “what assurance is there that that won’t come?”

If the constitutional amendment passes and the legislature creates a new property tax, that money will go into a special fund for education, he said.

“Money moves around,” said Riviere. “So if we now have $500 million of new money in the state budget for education, that means we have $500 million more dollars in the state budget, and the general funds that are now used for education might be carved up to pay for something else. Because all the other public worker unions are going to want a piece of this pie, too … But it isn’t going to solve the problem if we expand the budget but do not expand education funding. There’s nothing in this constitutional amendment that requires additional money to go to education. It’s smoke and mirrors if you’re saying all this money will go to education and we will retain all the other money. That’s not going to happen. History has told us time and time again that a tax will grow, it will expand and it will reach up and get more.”

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