Friday, March 25, 2005

"What we do as police officers is above and beyond what we're getting paid for."

Tenari Maafala
President, State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers

Bill exempts
police from tax

The Senate passes a move
that some fear might set
an unaffordable precedent

Police officers would not have to pay state income tax under a proposal advancing in the Legislature.

Its aim is to help county departments recruit and keep more members of the force. But both the Tax Department and the Hawaii Government Employees Association have testified against the exemption. They argue it would be unfair to other public workers and could spur other unions to seek the same exemption for their members.

But supporters of the bill say officers who put their lives on the line deserve an exemption.

In asking lawmakers to support the bill, Tenari Maafala, a 16-year veteran and president of the State of Hawaii Organization of Police Officers, said the exemption would provide officers with more pay and help keep them in Hawaii. Maafala noted that officers in cities of comparable size to Honolulu earn up to 20 percent more money.

He also described the unique hazards faced by officers who put their lives on the line during their work hours but also are held accountable for their actions while off duty.

Maafala spoke of the worry that police officers face on a daily basis from retaliation by offenders they might have dealt with in the past.

"I cannot take my family -- my wife and my children -- to the shopping malls without having my head on a swivel," he said.

"What we do as police officers is above and beyond what we're getting paid for," he added.

Salaries for police officers in Hawaii range from about $34,000 a year for a rookie to $66,000 a year for a veteran with more than 22 years of experience.

The bill granting the tax exemption has passed out of the Senate and was advanced yesterday by two House committees with some minor changes. Both chambers would have to agree on the proposal for it to go to the governor for consideration.

The state Department of Taxation said the exemption would cost the state about $7.6 million a year in tax revenues.

"Enacting this bill may create a precedent and encourage other groups to seek a similar state income tax exemption," the Tax Department said in written testimony.

House Labor Chairman Kirk Caldwell said that was a legitimate concern.

"I think it would be hard for any of us to say, 'Well, your situation doesn't merit the same consideration as someone else,'" said Caldwell (D, Manoa). "Having said that, I think there is a public policy argument to make for police officers because ... they really are the ones going into dangerous situations to help people in which other people are trying to kill them."

He urged colleagues to consider testing the tax exemption through a pilot project and also suggested doing it through a tiered approach, in which officers could claim larger tax exemptions based on years of service.

"With a five-year project, maybe we'd see the turnover drop, and at least we'd know that it works," Caldwell said.

Republicans supported the measure but also said they would rather see the issue of police pay negotiated in collective bargaining.

Minority Leader Galen Fox (R, Waikiki-Ala Moana) and Rep. Mark Moses (R, Makakilo-Kapolei) also suggested that the state turn over money from un-adjudicated traffic fines to counties as a way to pay for police raises.

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