State tax rebate? Not now and not with stolen money
The state collected so much tax money in 2005 and 2006 that the Hawaii Constitution requires a tax rebate. After the manini rebates of $1 per taxpayer in 1994 and 2002, this time the governor is talking about real money: $100 for low- and middle-income taxpayers. The wealthy -- those with household incomes over $100,000 -- will get $25.
Is it, as one commentator recently said, a situation where Hawaii's government leaders have ignored the concerns of real people, consistently demanding more than taxpayers should be forced to pay? Have they taken money unnecessarily from good, hard-working folks without good reason? Is this rebate overdue?
Consider the following:
» More than $45 million of the rebate represents money withheld from substitute and part-time teachers whom the Department of Education underpaid from 1997-2005 in violation of state law. Our rebate is their back wages. Should we take stolen money?
» Thousands of retired workers served for decades with integrity and skill. Part of the bargain these public servants made was that they would take lower wages in return for generous retirement benefits, including lifetime health care on parity with active workers.
Several years ago, the state and counties reneged. They have cut health and dental benefits for retirees -- "saving" millions in the process. Do we really want a rebate that was created by cheating these senior citizens? Is it right to take money needed to pay for their lifesaving medical care?
» Students throughout Hawaii still do not have access to their own copies of school books, much less computers. This situation is intolerable in a state that aspires to improve its mediocre public schools and give our kids a fair chance to succeed. Isn't the rebate better spent on an investment in the future?
» If you walk through government buildings anywhere in the state -- even the Capitol and the buildings around it -- you will find the facilities are poorly maintained. Ceilings leak, paint is peeling, plumbing does not work. The bridges, dams, roads, schools and parks are in deplorable condition. Should we take a rebate while we allow government facilities to decay? Is it fair to burden our children with bigger repair bills?
» Public housing is in short supply and much that exists is in deplorable condition. Families live on the streets because in the past decade the state has built few new units of public housing (unless you call big tents and warehouses real housing). Can anyone justify taking a rebate when kids live in cars and tents?
Forget the rebate. Fix the problems that need fixing. Return stolen pay and benefits so we can honor binding legal commitments to teachers and retirees. Recognize that we have a duty to rebuild and properly maintain government facilities and infrastructure. Past generations paid to build them; at least we can keep them in good condition. Paying rebates out of stolen money and when needs are unmet is inexcusable.
Paul Alston is a lawyer who represents substitute teachers and retirees in pending class action lawsuits against the state. His law firm has represented schoolchildren in actions against the Department of Education.