Akaka pans
$400 billion
defense bill

He says the spending measure
is unfair to civilian employees

U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka (D-Hawaii) said last night that he voted against the $400.5 billion defense spending bill because it would give the Pentagon authority to do whatever it wants with its civilian work force, including those at Pearl Harbor.

Earlier this year, Wayne Wagner, president of the Hawaii Federal Employees Metal Trades Council, estimated that more than 4,200 civilian workers in the Pearl Harbor Naval Shipyard would be affected by the Pentagon proposal.

The union held several demonstrations at Pearl Harbor and protested against possible loss of jobs and rights in front of a Waikiki hotel while President Bush attended a GOP fund-raiser last month.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has said the Pentagon needs to be freed from many civil service laws to organize its 746,000 civilian employees into a work force to meet such challenges as global terrorism.

The defense spending measure, which passed the Senate by a 95-3 vote last night, goes to Bush for his approval since it passed the House on Friday by a 362-40 vote. Akaka was among the three senators who opposed passage, while Sen. Daniel Inouye supported the measure.

Both houses of Congress also have passed a separate $9.7 billion military construction bill, which sets aside more than $329 million for 22 projects in Hawaii.

For Hawaii the military construction bill earmarks $194 million for the Army, $46 million for the Navy and Marine Corps and more than $89 million for the Air Force -- $75 million of which is for Hickam Air Force Base's new C-17 jet transport squadron being established to set up the 25th Infantry Division's planned Stryker combat brigade.

More than $80 million of the $194 million allocated to the Army would go to acquire more land in Wahiawa to begin the preparation work for the new 19-ton, eight-wheeled Stryker combat vehicles. The Army is taking public testimony for an environmental impact statement it is required to complete.

In a written floor statement, Akaka said the bill gives Rumsfeld the authority to review labor disputes and "appears to hand one party the final say on all labor and management issues. This language is inconsistent with the concept of good-faith bargaining between equals."

Akaka also noted: "The bill would amend the Endangered Species Act to exempt defense lands from critical habitat designations without establishing appropriate environmental safeguards. ... It would authorize DOD (Department of Defense) to conduct activities that have a significant potential to harm large numbers of marine mammals without even applying for a permit and having the appropriate regulatory agencies review the proposed activities."

The defense spending bill includes an average military pay raise of 4.1 percent. The amounts for the Jan. 1 increase range from 3.7 percent to 6.25 percent, depending on pay grade. It also approves two major benefits enhancements, one of them a one-year test of expanded health coverage for reservists and their families. It would allow drilling reservists without private health insurance to enroll in the military program and extend coverage for up to 180 days after their release from active duty at no cost.

For disabled retirees, the defense spending bill would amend a law dubbed by Rep. Neil Abercrombie and other critics the "disabled veterans tax."

Abercrombie said that under current federal law, retired military personnel are not allowed to receive both their military pension and their disability benefits. He estimated 4,150 Hawaii retirees are subjected to the disabled veterans tax, losing about $21.7 million annually. Abercrombie said the changes include:

>> Full retirement pay for veterans, including reservists and National Guard personnel, with service-connected disability rated at more than 50 percent, phased in over the next 10 years, in addition to disability payments.

>> Exemption for Purple Heart retirees.

Abercrombie said he will continue to press for the repeal of the law since "it is illogical, counterproductive and unfair.

"There are still too many veterans left out, and the phase-in period is far too long."


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