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StarBulletin.com

2009 Legislature theme? Me first — at 38 percent


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POSTED: Monday, June 15, 2009

At any gathering serving food or refreshments, I was raised to make sure that seniors and disabled were served first. Guests and families with young children went next and then everyone else. But I had to be last or near last in line. I also had to make sure everyone got “;firsts”; before even thinking about getting “;seconds.”; This harsh economic time reminds me of that life lesson.

This economy is forcing many of us to worry about making sure our families can put “;firsts”; on the kitchen table, let alone thinking of “;seconds.”; Many of us know friends, family and neighbors who have lost their jobs or had their hours cut back. Making ends meet never looked so hard.

Now comes the news that state employees face three-day furloughs. We see the spectacle of finger-pointing by union bosses and legislators at the governor, as if that meant something. If I were a state employee, forced by law to pay union dues, I would demand more from the union bosses, who collect fat six-figure incomes, to do something more than name-calling. It is ironic that union bosses supported and endorsed the very same legislators that made sure they got their raise, but somehow left union members holding an empty bag.

Since January of 2009, legislators have been collecting a 36 percent pay raise. In July 2009, that raise will be reduced by 5 percent. With the highest unemployment figures in decades, hours being cut, bankruptcies and foreclosures at all-time highs and record low tax collections, legislators put themselves at the front of the line and took firsts, seconds and thirds, before any of us were able to find the line.

Put into perspective, state employees who work every day of the year are facing a 14 percent pay cut through furloughs. Legislators who work only 60 days a year gave themselves three times more in raises. The sheer greed, insensitivity and lack of leadership is stunning.

I know legislators who will read this and insist that the law forced them to take the 36 percent raise. To quote my teenage daughter, “;Yeah ... right.”; The truth is that the Legislature changed the state Constitution so a “;salary commission”; made up of people they appoint determines how much legislators should be paid. Conveniently, when legislators wrote the law, the condition of the economy was not a factor the salary commission gets to consider. So the sky is the limit in terms of future raises.

Before the change, legislators got raises the old-fashioned way. They had to ask for a raise. They introduced a bill to get a raise, the public got to voice our opinion and democracy worked. More often than not, legislators voted down raises or voted for modest raises. Now, all they have to do to get a raise is to simply blink their eyes and take another breath. The raise just gets shoved in their pocket and down our throats. What's even funnier is that they actually have to pass a law not to take their raise or take less.

If you are concerned or outraged by the greed and insensitivity of our legislators, it's time to make your voice heard. The next legislator you see at the airport, in the store or especially if he or she is running for reelection or higher office, greet that legislator with, “;How's the 36 percent?”; or “;Dude, where's my 36 percent raise?”; or even “;36 percent?!”;

Go up to them, e-mail, fax, call their office, send a letter and gently remind them that they need to make sure other people get served first before filling their plate. We need to remind legislators that they serve the public, not themselves. Because anyone who thinks they deserve a 36 percent raise in this economy isn't thinking about us. Let's tell them that we care about our seniors, disabled, families and friends. Thirty-six percent?!

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Ted Hong is an employment attorney in Hilo who served as chief labor negotiator in Gov. Linda Lingle's administration, and was a UH regent and former state Senate candidate.