Thursday, April 26, 2001

$43 million boost
for Felix kids

District Judge Ezra warned of
fines of $200,000 a day if the state
did not appropriate the funds

By Richard Borreca and B.J. Reyes

Prompted by threats from a federal judge to take over the state's special-education system, House and Senate conferees last night approved a state budget that boosts special-education spending by $43 million a year.

U.S. District Judge David Ezra issued no sanctions against the state at a hearing yesterday but said unless the Legislature appropriates the funds to bring the state in compliance with the Felix consent decree by June 30, he will have little choice.

Those sanctions include a takeover of the state's special-education system by a court-appointed receiver and fines as high as $200,000 a day, he said.

"I'm not making threats," Ezra said. "I'm asking the leaders of our state Legislature to see the light and see the predicament we are in."

The decree came after a 1993 federal lawsuit was filed on behalf of Jennifer Felix. It claimed the state violated federal law by failing to provide adequate services to special-needs students. Last year, Ezra found the state in contempt for not complying with the decree. The state now has until the end of this year to be in full compliance.

The state's annual costs have soared to more than $350 million for 11,000 children from $45 million in 1995 for 4,000 children.

Senate Ways and Means Chairman Brian Taniguchi (D, Manoa-Moiliili-McCully-Pawaa) and House Finance Chairman Dwight Takamine (D, North Hilo-Hamakua) said the amount added to the budget would put annual spending for Felix health and educational services at $350 million.

"I'm not sure we met his goal, but I'm not sure that's our responsibility," Takamine said. "Clearly, the judge has to be accountable to enforcing the federal law. The Legislature, on the other hand, plays a different role and has different responsibilities."

Taniguchi said, "We are not trying not to fund anything; we are trying to see that all the Felix goals are met, and we feel they can be met, given the resources that we are providing."

Gov. Ben Cayetano said the state has to take the judge's warning seriously. "But in fairness to the legislators, they do have a constitutional duty to make sure the money is well spent," he said.

Cayetano said there is a "communication gap" between the Department of Education and the Legislature, adding that legislators have told him "they are not just going to give the money; they want to know what is happening to it."

Rep. Dennis Arakaki (D, Kamehameha Heights) is among those calling for accountability.

"We can appropriate the money, but we know that just throwing money at it is not going to solve it," he said. "And I as Health chairman would want some assurance that if the funding goes through, our special-needs students are getting appropriate treatment in the appropriate setting and also has the family-support services."

He said the judge's statements do not leave legislators any choice but to fund the biennium budget requests of the Health and Education departments. But he disagrees with their emphasis on money.

"The real shortfall is leadership," he said. "At some point in time, it may be better to have a master take over. If that's what it's going to take to establish a system needed to provide quality mental health services to our kids, maybe we're better off allowing that to happen."

State Health Director Bruce Anderson said his agency currently is about $12 million short to be in compliance with Felix. Schools Superintendent Paul LeMahieu said the state is still about $31 million short of meeting the funds necessary to be in compliance.

"These are funds that are absolutely needed -- not for a Cadillac, but for a vehicle that can deliver what the children need," LeMahieu said.

Unless the money is in place by June 30, Ezra said it would be impossible for the state to meet federal compliance standards, and he would have no choice but to issue sanctions.

"(A fine of) $200,000 a day is not unreasonable," the judge said, adding that the money paid in fines would have to be paid in addition to the money needed to be in compliance.

Senate President Robert Bunda reacted sharply to Ezra's order, saying that if the federal government was to direct the state to do something, "he should cough up the money."

"I think he should come to the Legislature and let us know how he thinks we should be handling this," Bunda said. He said he also wanted to know from the attorney general whether Ezra was overstepping his authority.

He explained that while the Senate now figures it has more money to spend because of the funds saved from the collective bargaining settlements, it is not certain it wants to spend them on the Felix case. "We have got other programs that we also need to focus on," he said.

Star-Bulletin reporter Lisa Asato and the
Associated Press contributed to this report.

E-mail to City Desk

Text Site Directory:
[News] [Business] [Features] [Sports] [Editorial] [Do It Electric!]
[Classified Ads] [Search] [Subscribe] [Info] [Letter to Editor]

© 2001 Honolulu Star-Bulletin