House unanimously approves school funding Constitutional Amendment; Family Leave advances

State House lawmakers unanimously approved a bill Tuesday to ask voters whether the state should be empowered to impose a tax surcharge on investment properties to help fund public education. The proposed constitutional amendment would ask voters this fall whether the Legislature should be authorized to levy a surcharge on property taxes on investment properties to support education.

Senate Bill 2922 sparked nearly an hour of discussion Tuesday in the state House, and in the end all 50 House members voted to put the issue on the ballot. The next step for the proposal should become clear in the next few days.

In remarks on the House floor, Rep. Matt Lopresti (D - Ewa Villages, Ewa Beach, Ewa Gentry), said, “Our students deserve better, our teachers deserve better, the principals deserve better, the parents who put their trust in the state to educate their children, they deserve better. And this is the mechanism to do that.”

Earlier this month, the House Education Committee voted 11-0 in favor of the proposal, which calls for a constitutional amendment An amendment is needed because the state Constitution gives counties the exclusive power to levy property taxes.

The committee made significant changes to the bill, including removing language that also would have imposed a surcharge on visitor accommodations. A previous draft specified that the property tax surcharge would apply only to second homes valued at $1 million or more; that detail has been removed. Lawmakers also removed language prescribing exactly how the collected revenue could be spent.

Under the revised bill, the ballot question would be: “Shall the Legislature be authorized to establish, as provided by law, a surcharge on investment real property to be used to support public education?”

House Education Chair Justin Woodson (D – Kahului, Puunene, Maui Lani) spoke about changes to the proposal.

“The definitions are, in fact, broad, to allow us the maximum flexibility so that adjustments can be made accordingly,” Woodson said. “That was in fact purposefully done, because the last thing we want to do is to inadvertently hurt working people.”

“Yes, this is a funding mechanism that has never been used before,” Woodson added. “Hawaii is the only state in the country that the county municipalities do not have to provide any money for our public schools.”

Rep. Chris Todd, a third-generation graduate of Hilo High School who coaches football at the school, described a campus football field that slopes toward the ocean and has exposed rocks. Injuries are common because of the field’s poor condition. “That’s just the football field, and that might be one of the better parts of our campus,” Todd said.

The bathrooms in the old gym don’t work and are blocked off, and the weight room has dozens of holes in the ceiling, said Todd (D, Hilo-Waiakea-Keaukaha). “I think that there are stories like this in most public schools in Hawaii.”

“The point of this is that we’re at a point of desperation, and desperate times call for desperate measures,” he said. In addition to raising more money for education, Todd suggested that the proposed surcharge on property taxes for investment properties would “dramatically disincentivize” foreign investment in Hawaii, Todd said.

Hawaii State Teachers Association President Corey Rosenlee said he hopes the Senate will agree to the House version to quickly resolve the debate and get the proposed amendment on the ballot this fall.

“Bills are always about compromise, and we feel that this one gives a lot of opportunity,” he said. “We’re not going after people’s homes. We’re going after a lot of these speculators.” Polling by HSTA shows 74 percent of Hawaii residents support more funding for public education, Rosenlee said.

“We have to thank the thousands of teachers and supporters in the community who sent in testimony or went to the Capitol in person to support this proposal. It will make a difference for teachers and students,” Rosenlee added.

Speaking on the House floor, Rep. Kaniela Ing (D - Kihei, Wailea, Makena) quoted Rosenlee who told him, “I asked one of the teachers would you quit your second job if you get a raise, and she said ‘No, but I’d quit my third one.’ This is out of control.”

This is the third straight year HSTA has pressed lawmakers to boost spending on public education with a dedicated funding stream, and the union will return again to try to be sure any money raised through a surcharge actually increases spending on public education, Rosenlee said.

The House and Senate both also advanced bills to provide for paid family leave. The House version in SB 2990 would create a Paid Family Leave Implementation Board to assist the Department of Human Services in establishing paid family leave for all workers. It requires DHS to adopt interim rules by 2020.

The Senate version of the bill in HB 2598 would require the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations to establish a paid family leave program by Jan. 1, 2021, that includes an expanded temporary disability insurance program, applies to employers with one or more employees and protects the jobs of employees who use the program.

Most of the bills approved in votes this week will undergo further changes in conference committee meetings later this month. Lawmakers will engage in closed-door conference negotiations to iron out differences between House and Senate drafts of bills — including the $14 billion state budget — and then announce their decisions after those meetings are finished.