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by Pearl Hahn

Hawaii’s unions could be a valuable asset to the community. Every individual is guaranteed freedom of assembly to associate with whomever he wishes to express, promote, pursue, or defend a common interest such as better working conditions. This is a basic human right. Problems arise, however, when any group believes it is entitled to special privileges and benefits.

Unions in Hawaii have, through legislation, amassed salaries and benefits upon benefits that would push any private company into bankruptcy.

Over the weekend, I had the pleasure of meeting a former director with the city Department of Parks and Recreation. He told me that before leaving his post, he had accumulated two years’ worth of vacation in addition to nearly three weeks of sick leave. On top of that, the Department offered to reimburse him mileage for transportation. (FYI- the city Department of Parks and Recreation, as of FY07, had 847 full-time positions, 24 temporary positions, and 267 contract employees, for a total of 1,138 employees. Its operating budget was $58,353,260).

Is such a thing in the private sector even conceivable? He recalls thinking this and confessed to “feeling bad” at the time, although he did partake in a good chunk of the earned vacation time and sick leave. He turned down the mileage reimbursement.

This story is a troubling one.

Hawaii’s government bureaucracy is big and monstrously expensive. Its faults and problems are no secret, as has been noted by the state auditor and similar reports. State workers have priced themselves beyond the realm of affordability, and everyone is paying the price.

Furloughs only touch the tip of the iceberg. Earlier this year, Governor Lingle ordered furloughs of three days a month, amounting to 72 days- a 13.8 percent pay cut-beginning in July to help close the budget gap. She said this alone would save the state $688 million. So far, a judge has ruled that Lingle cannot unilaterally impose the furloughs and that they must be negotiated.

But this is not nearly enough. State labor costs account for about 70 percent of state expenses. While Hawaii’s pockets were shrinking, state workers coasted on pay increases of 16 to 29 percent over the past few years.

Is there a desire on the part of Hawaii’s government to deliver it services as cheaply and effectively as possible for its citizens whose earnings they seize in order to provide such services? Are they delivering said services in a way that is vastly superior than that of the private sector? Is it justifiable to use a skyrocketing amount of public funds to pay government employees not to work and enjoy two years’ vacation time, to say nothing of pensions, holidays, training, and other benefits?

Today, the state notified the United Public Workers and the Hawaii Government Employees Association (HGEA) that over 1,100 of their members face possible layoffs.

In a news release, Senator Inouye, who himself is standing to receive $135 million in bailout funds for his troubled Central Pacific Financial bank, said “Why should there be layoffs?”

The answer is simple. To all the state workers, union members, and wise leaders like Inouye who have such blind faith in their impeccable work ethic, value, and skill set: The bottom line is that there are too many of you getting paid too much to do too little. We cannot afford you and have not been able to for some time now. The state bureaucracy has proven a poor investment for Hawaii’s taxpayers who are forced to pick up the tab while struggling to get by themselves.

Government employees claim to be making a living as public servants. Then why, during all this time, have they been asking what Hawaii should do for them, instead of what they should be doing for Hawaii?