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Lawmakers back off cutting worker benefits


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POSTED: Saturday, February 14, 2009

Yielding to public opposition, state lawmakers shelved a pair of proposals that would have cut retirement and health benefits for public workers to make up the projected $75 million shortfall in this year's budget.

;[Preview]First Round Of Govt. Benefit Cuts Rejected
  ;[Preview]
 

Hundreds of government employees turned out at a legislative hearing Friday where the first proposal to cut benefits was rejected, though a proposal to freeze salaries for certain high ranking officials was approved.

Watch ]

 

  The proposals were part of a package introduced by House Speaker Calvin Say, who apologized for causing anxiety and worry among the masses of public workers but said he felt he was doing what needed to be done to examine any and all ways of addressing the budget deficit.

Dozens of union members took time off from work yesterday and packed a conference room at the state Capitol for the three-hour hearing.

Workers said the proposals, if enacted, would lead to a mass exodus of state workers, particularly in education and public safety sectors, because many would feel compelled to retire early to maintain benefits.

Their testimony in opposition swayed Labor Chairman Karl Rhoads (D, Chinatown-Downtown) to recommend holding two of the proposals in committee.

“;The point that public workers will leave the public sector in droves is a very convincing argument,”; Rhoads said.

“;Public workers go into public service not because of the money,”; he added. “;The only thing we've been able to give them in the past is better benefits, and if we take those away, no one's going to want to work for the government anymore, and that's not a situation I look forward to being in.”;

House Bill 1718 proposed that the state's Employer-Union Trust Fund reimburse Medicare Part B premiums only for employees who retire before the end of this year.

A second proposal, HB 1719, would suspend state and county contributions to the EUTF for all state and county employee-beneficiaries who retire after July 1, regardless of date of hire and years of service, if the employee retires before the employee's Medicare retirement age. It would resume coverage after the employee reaches the Medicare retirement age.

Angie Hashimoto of Kaneohe, an educational assistant for special-education students at King Intermediate School, said the cuts in benefits would have her and others like her making tough financial choices.

“;We're barely going to cut it, and we are going to have to start deciding, do I buy food or do I pay this bill?”; she said. “;It gets really hard when they start making us make those survival decisions. People's lives will be highly affected.”;

Say said he had been the target of angry calls and e-mails following his introduction of the bills and apologized for any anxiety or frustration the measures might have caused.

“;I take sole responsibility for these actions,”; Say (D, St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise-Palolo Valley) said before the hearing began, adding that his main goal was to foster a serious public discussion about all avenues for saving the state money.

“;It was not the intent to hurt you,”; he added. “;The intent was to not to try to lay off public employees, but for all to share in the pain.”;

Randy Perreira, executive director of the state's largest public worker union, the Hawaii Government Employees Association, said it was unfair for Say to target public-sector workers.

“;If we truly believe that everybody in Hawaii has got to pay the price—that we all share the pain—certainly these (proposals) are rather narrowly defined,”; Perreira said. “;It seems what the House did was they created a lot of anxiety—they stirred the pot, clearly, and grabbed the attention of a lot of public employees.

“;At the end of the day, after all the testimony, they decided to (hold the bills). It seems as if they wasted taxpayer money.”;