Tuesday, May 1, 2001

Hawaii State Seal

Civil service
reform vote a
tossup today

Public workers are at the
center of a political
tug of war

By Richard Borreca

LAWMAKERS ARE UNDER the heaviest lobbying barrage of the year as lobbyists get in their best pitches on a new civil service reform measure.

Legislature Ground zero is a bill to change the state public union health fund law which supporters say will save the state from bankruptcy and opponents say will gut labor union bargaining.

The bill is expected to be voted on at about noon in the House and in the afternoon in the Senate.

The bill changes how state workers buy medical insurance. Currently the state pays 60 percent of the premium. But when the union runs its own plan for a price cheaper than the large state plan, the state still kicks in the 60 percent fee of the more expensive plan, meaning that some workers get nearly all of their insurance paid for by the state.

That imbalance is running up the state's costs so much that Rep. Scott Saiki (D, McCully) yesterday said that if something is not done, the health fund will be insolvent, and "the state may go bankrupt."

To drive home the importance of the vote today, Gov. Ben Cayetano spent a second day lobbying the Legislature. First, he briefed the entire Senate in a closed-door meeting and then addressed the Democrat and Republican caucuses in the House.

"I am pretty confident the House will pass it. The Senate is still a question," Cayetano said yesterday as he paused between his rounds.

He predicted that the key votes will fall to the three Senate Republicans. Already Sen. Fred Hemmings (R, Kailua) is saying he may vote against the bill.

He called the bill a "Band-Aid measure and a piecemeal solution."

Others however, disagree.

"We are pleased that lawmakers stand poised to adopt legislation that will finally begin to make the years of talk about government reform and efficiency a reality," said Robin Campaniano, Hawaii Business Roundtable chairman.

A second bill that frees the state to contract for private services also won support from the Chamber of Commerce, where Stanley Hong, chamber president, called the bill "bold and proactive."

Cayetano, who usually stays away from lobbying the Legislature and asking for action, said he is urging passage today.

The bill, Cayetano explained, would create an employer-union trust fund as a single public employee health benefit system.

"The economies of scale and purchasing cloud of a single entity, as well as a broader-based risk pool, would achieve cost savings," he said.

Meanwhile, the public worker unions are doing all they can in a last-minute effort to kill the health fund bill.

Maurice Morita, lobbyist with the Hawaii State Teachers Association, has urged that the bill be delayed, noting, "Some of you will be running for re-election in 2002."

John Radcliffe, with the University of Hawaii Professional Assembly, called the measure "a bad bill with worse implications and cynical intent."

Russell Okata, head of the Hawaii Government Employees Association, called it "one of the most anti-worker measures to be considered for passage by any Legislature."

Supporters say action is critical because if nothing is done, health benefits costs will rise 250 percent by 2013.

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