Tight furlough times call for creativity


POSTED: Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Budget reductions needed in public education are not as simple as the furloughs that Gov. Linda Lingle prescribed for the state's executive departments, but solutions must be found in classrooms to achieve what the governor described as their equivalent. The problem will be compounded by any delays in determining the formula for limiting the pain in achieving a constitutionally-required balanced budget.

Officials at the University of Hawaii are sounding the alarm about the possibility of applying Lingle's three-days-a-month furlough to UH employees. They warn that such a system could threaten the existence of programs that are estimated to bring in $400 million a year in external funds.

The state “;shouldn't furlough technicians and all the people paid out of federal grants,”; said Gary Ostrander, UH vice president for research and graduate education. He told the Star-Bulletin's Helen Altonn that some functions, such as checking animal traps or treating children with cancer, cannot be stopped for three days in a month. No one is proposing such a stoppage, only that cutbacks be the equivalent of savings from furloughs.

The state Board of Education is considering a 5 percent cut in nonlabor costs, but that would amount to only $16 million of the nearly $260 million that would be comparable to the three-day monthly furloughs. Board Chairman Garrett Toguchi wants to “;shake the tree, get some money”; to help pay the cost.

Lingle is asking for federal stimulus funds amounting to $111 million for public schools, more than $46 million for the UH system and $35 million for charter schools and science and math education, but that would not be enough to achieve solvency.

Toguchi suggests emptying the $100 million state hurricane emergency fund and possibly raising the general excise tax by half a percentage point. Hawaii already is one of the most heavily-taxed states in the country and legislators overrode several vetoes by Lingle of tax increases this year, including a hike in income taxes paid by the wealthy.

Budgetary conditions have deteriorated for nearly every state during the fiscal year that ends this month. The problem is expected to extend for at least the next two years, since state fiscal recoveries historically lag behind comebacks from national recessions.

“;Revenues have come in below even the most pessimistic forecasts,”; says Scott D. Pattison, executive director of the National Association of State Budget Officers. “;Plunging revenues have caused the unraveling of state budget plans, continuing to force states to make painful decisions.”;

Eighteen states are in the stages of implementing furloughs, most of them one day or less per month; Hawaii's furlough is the nation's most severe. California has implemented a two-days-a-month furlough, but the tarnished Golden State also has laid off 27,0000 teachers and may let go an additional 25,000, together constituting 15 percent of the state's public school teachers.