One of the scariest moments of the recently adjourned session came as the houselights began to dim and that was that none of the big give aways, like tax relief or tax incentives, saw the light of day, all having been left on the cutting room floor.
Why is it scary? Well, the wild card in the financial plan was the settlement of public employee contract negotiations. In a year that was emblematic of the state’s economic recovery where tax revenues were pushing a double digit growth figure, lawmakers could not find the extra cash to cover both public employee pay raises and provide either tax relief or tax incentives that ranged from enhanced tax credits for film makers to financial relief for victims of the Manoa Valley floods of last fall.
No, it is not that the settlements have been overly generous, although some may disagree. What is troubling is that the number of public employee positions continues to grow. Some politicians may argue otherwise by not counting those positions which are paid for by special funds or happen to be what is called the “90-day wonders” or emergency hires. But overall the cost of collective bargaining settlements rises because the number of positions continues to proliferate. Further, because collective bargaining is layered on top of a civil service system of compensation that recognizes longevity, the adjustment of compensation is usually more than the publicly enunciated percentage increase.
While pay increases under the collective bargaining law are always going to be subject to negotiation, the growing size of government doesn’t have to be. Some might argue that as we ask government to do more and more for us, the public workforce would also need to grow.
No, it might be possible that government could indeed keep up with the demand for public services without having to add more bodies to the public workforce. As you may recall, the previous administration and the current flock of lawmakers made much ado about coming into the 21st Century with high technology. On the other hand, most observers of state government know that it is still in the dark ages of technology.
Save for the recent effort to upgrade the tax department’s ability to integrate the gross income tax system with the net income tax system, the rest of the state lags well behind in utilizing technology to make its operations more efficient. For example, the departments of human services and health still rely on Wangs for tracking the hundreds of clients they serve. A perennial joke is that many of the children in the care of these two departments, as well as the department of education, can get as many as three or four of the same immunization in the same year because none of the information systems in each department talk to the other.
It is not like the suggestion has not been made to upgrade the information systems of these departments, but apparently either technology upgrades have been low on the spending totem pole or perhaps there has been resistance to do so. In any case, it would seem that if the information that is collected on clients could be better managed and if systems could talk across department lines, services could be provided more efficiently and with less personnel.
Similarly, lawmakers have for years berated the fact that classroom teachers continue to use their personal funds to purchase supplies. Although critics berate the legislature for not providing enough money for classroom supplies, just the opposite is true. For more than ten years now, funds have continually been put into the budget for classroom supplies, the problem is that it takes so long to get money out of that budget through the purchase order system that frustrated teachers find it easier and more efficient to use their own funds Again, it would seem that technology could overcome this problem. It was pointed out to a previous superintendent that the department of human services already uses technology to provide food stamps through a debit card system known as EBT, why couldn’t the department of education follow that lead by providing each classroom teacher with a debit card? A limit could be set on the amount allowed to be spent and restrictions could be imposed allowing only classroom supplies to be purchased. In other words, a teacher couldn’t go out and use the debit card to put a down payment on a new car. The money would be paid over to the vendor directly from the school budget and the teacher could walk out with the materials he or she needs.
Thus, one way government could be more cost efficient is to employ technology. What a novel idea!