WHT editorial: No to education tax; but yes on local control

With so much uncertainty swirling around the constitutional amendment proposal asking voters to raise property taxes to help fund public schools, it’s been impossible for anyone to say — should the measure pass — where the money would go.

That conundrum is proving a tricky sell for the Hawaii Teachers’ Association and other advocates. They’re asking for hundreds of millions in financial relief from taxpayers without having any of the detail as to what holes that relief would fill.

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But asking they are, and voters will decide Nov. 6 whether they trust the state Legislature to put their money to good use. Because really that’s what the ballot question boils down to: Do you trust your lawmakers?

But that’s not how the question is posed on the ballot. Far from it. It’s worded loosely enough to give the Legislature the authority to implement a new tax — nothing on exactly how much it will cost, whom it will hit, and what the revenues will go for, exactly.

It’s worded thus: “Shall the legislature be authorized to establish, as provided by law, a surcharge on investment real property to be used to support public education?”

A yes vote gives the lawmakers that ability; a no vote doesn’t.

The Department of Education gets about $2 billion in total funds, including those that come from the federal government, but the department still needs between at least $250 million and $300 million.

The ballot question isn’t detailed, proponents argue, on purpose. Constitutional amendments, once approved, only provide the legal avenue for lawmakers to use to propose bills with more precise language when it comes to taxes and spending for public education.

“It gives the Legislature a blank check,” is how Sherry Menor-McNamara, president of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii, put it at an Oct. 3 forum in Kailua-Kona.

Simple, but true.

So, for any voter who wants to support public education financially, do you trust your state Legislature to do the right thing with the money?

Because if you give them that vehicle, be sure they’re going to put the keys in the ignition.

What driving it looks like, nobody knows. It could be a small surcharge on non-owner occupied homes valued at $1 million or more, and those revenues could all go to increasing teachers’ salaries.

Or they could make it an across-the-board tax hike with all the money going to to administration pay raises. Political suicide the latter example is for sure, but the point is they could.

Plenty of skeptics — and there were more of them at the forum than proponents — don’t trust the lawmakers. In fairness, they have history on their side as to where giving the Legislature a new tax power could lead.

They point to the state’s bait and switch on the transient accommodations tax, which has for years shorted neighbor islands from revenues collected from what’s called the hotel tax.

Were the original allocation agreement in place, Hawaii County would be getting $41 million right now. Instead, thanks to Oahu-minded votes at the Capitol, it’s $19 million.

We urge voters to turn down the surcharge request. Yes, like everyone else, we support public education but turning over such ambiguous power to Oahu is watching money fly away forever.

It also feels like it would put a Band-Aid on an ax wound.

Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, makes a good point, though, when he says that he’s worried a no vote on the amendment would kill the discussion going on right now on how to improve public education in Hawaii.

Recently, WalletHub identified Hawaii as the worst state for teachers.

The personal finance website out of Washington, D.C., based that ranking on metrics like pay, income growth potential, share of uncertified teachers and teacher turnover, among others.

Rosenlee said that each day, a third of the state’s students — about 60,000 children — go to school and don’t have a qualified teacher. The state is also short 300-500 special education teachers, he added.

So yes, the conversation must go on and real change implemented.

Instead of handing money to Honolulu, however, the state should decentralize public education like the rest of the nation. Hawaii is the only state in the country to have a single statewide school district, meaning that Hawaii’s public schools get all of their funding from the state. Everywhere else in the country, local property taxes are used to fund the school system.

If Hawaii County property taxes have to be used to fund education, then give Hawaii County residents a local school board they can elect — one which they can contact directly, face to face, when matters of the budget and student spending arise.

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It may take more work to get there, and perhaps the Constitutional Convention voters are also voting on can play a role. Early walk-in voting starts Oct. 23. But if public education needs a major change — one thing on which both sides seem to agree is that it does — then it should be local control over a local budget.

It beats handing Oahu a blank check with one hand while keeping fingers crossed with the other.