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Friday, January 21, 2000

Hawaii State Seal

Reform ideas
scare state’s public
union workers

Among the proposals are cuts
in dependent health coverage and
health insurance contributions

Reforming government
Union affiliates in Hawaii
have good record, Okata says

By Rob Perez


All this talk about overhauling state government has Antoine Wurster nervous.

No wonder.

Proposals being discussed by Cayetano administration officials and legislators at the state Capitol could dramatically affect Wurster, a state planner, and tens of thousands of other public employees in Hawaii.

Legislature 2000 On Monday, Gov. Ben Cayetano formally presents his ideas for revamping state government when he gives his annual State of the State address.

The governor still was fine-tuning the package yesterday, and administration officials declined to talk to the Star-Bulletin about it.

But recent briefings they have given lawmakers suggest that sweeping changes could be on the horizon if the proposals survive Cayetano's scrutiny and legislators go along -- by no means a sure thing.

Some of the proposals, such as eliminating dependent health coverage for new employees and capping the amount government contributes for health insurance, would face stiff opposition, especially from public-sector unions and workers.

Other ideas, such as simplifying a cumbersome, outdated job classification system, already seem to have strong support.

But whether legislators will adopt significant reform during the current legislative session is uncertain.

"What will come out is almost anybody's guess," said Sen. Bob Nakata, whose labor committee will review many of the proposals.

One thing is certain, though. With so much at stake, the debate will be contentious. Emotions will run high.

"The process of institutional reform will be messy and won't be easy," said David McClain, dean of the University of Hawaii's College of Business Administration.

Cayetano and others say Hawaii's civil service and collective-bargaining laws, which have been changed little over the past several decades, need major revisions to reflect a world much different from when the laws were enacted.

The idea behind the reforms is to make government more efficient and nimble, enabling it to better serve taxpayers, keep costs under control and help stimulate the local economy in a fast-changing, technology-driven world.

Even the unions acknowledge that government must become more efficient. They say they want to participate in making that happen. They agree that archaic rules should be changed so managers and rank-and-file workers can do their jobs better.

The problem, they say, is that efficiencies shouldn't be sought by taking benefits from workers.

"Public workers have worked hard for their pay, hard for their benefits," said Russell Okata, executive director of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, the state's largest public-sector union. "And we're going to do everything we can to preserve those hard-earned benefits."

What to do about the soaring cost of health care benefits is expected to be one of the most controversial issues.

Rep. Ed Case, House majority leader and an early proponent of government reform, says the state already is facing a crisis. An independent study last year projected the cost of providing health benefits would grow to nearly $1 billion annually by 2013. That cost -- the state and counties' share of employee premiums -- was $266 million in 1998.

Unless legislators are willing to substantially cut government services or significantly raise taxes down the road, they can't fix the problem by looking only at curbing benefits for future employees, Case said.

Yet other lawmakers say the likelihood of passing any benefit cuts -- either for existing or future employees or retirees -- is slim.

Driving some of the reform proposals is a belief that government managers need more flexibility to run their departments. Many matters that should be up to management -- such as employee drug testing -- have become part of what is negotiated in union contracts, a process that can take years, reform proponents say.

"We've got to get back to the basics," Case said. "Collective bargaining is one thing, but collective management of government doesn't work."

Union officials say matters such as working conditions should be subject to negotiations to ensure worker rights are protected.

Another area expected to get attention in the reform debate deals with uniformity of civil service rules. In most cases, those rules apply across-the-board to state and county agencies.

The counties, for instance, are required to pay the same salaries as the state for the same type of positions -- even if the counties have different priorities and different financial capabilities.

Okata said he has no problem with uniformity. "It's called equal pay for equal work."

Many of the civil service proposals being discussed at the Legislature are not new. House Democrats two years ago introduced an omnibus reform bill as part of its majority package. But the Senate, considered a more pro-labor body, wasn't interested.

Wurster, the state planner, hopes any bills that would cut benefits or weaken worker protections meet a similar fate.

She said she favors making government more efficient, but overhauling the entire system shouldn't be the focus. Providing employees with up-to-date computers and other equipment would get even more results, she said.

"We need to have the proper tools and the training to do the job."

Reforming government

Some of the ideas Gov. Ben Cayetano has been considering for reforming Hawaii's civil service and collective bargaining systems. He makes final decisions this week and will present the proposals Monday in his State of the State speech:

Bullet Eliminate dependent health coverage for new hires.

Bullet Provide a fixed amount for employer contributions for health insurance. Eliminate the Public Employees Health Fund and create a union trust to administer the program.

Bullet Establish a "two strikes and out" drug-testing policy and require all new state hires to take a drug test.

Bullet Provide performance-based pay for senior managers and eliminate automatic increases based on collective bargaining agreements.

Bullet Eliminate overtime pay in calculating retirement benefits.

Bullet Enact a work force restructuring program similar to the federal government's voluntary separation program, which provides incentive for certain employees to leave government.

Bullet Eliminate overlap between civil service and collective bargaining. Basically, if a benefit or job condition is set by union contract and law, delete it from the law.

Bullet Create enabling legislation to allow for public-private employee stock ownership corporations.

Bullet Allow counties to have their own personnel systems and negotiate their own contracts with the unions.

Bullet Create new job classification and compensation system that promotes more flexibility and establishes performance-based pay options.

Source: Administration documents

Government workers
union details cases of
corruption among
its chapters

Union affiliates in Hawaii
have good record, Okata says

Star-Bulletin staff


Hawaii unions affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees are free of the kind of corruption reported in some mainland AFSCME unions, says Russell Okata, Hawaii Government Employees Union executive director.

Okata is one of 26 AFSCME international vice presidents. He represents Hawaii and the Pacific region on the parent union's board. Besides HGEA, AFSCME also is the parent union of the United Public Workers union.

Okata pointed out that AFSCME "moved very swiftly ... to ensure that members know our union is very clean, and we respond quickly to root out those union officials who have misplaced their members' trust."

Okata said: "AFSCME's constitution allows or gives local unions tremendous autonomy because everyone is a leader. We want to run our own shop in our own jurisdiction. But again, when misapplication or misuse of funds occurs, the national union has the power to remove those elected officials.

"We have a pretty good record of labor in Hawaii," Okata added. "As a community and state, we run a lot more openly. People know each other. I think our culture promotes more direct membership involvement," he said.

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