High court nixes vote on school funding amendment

It’s too late to remove from ballot, will not be counted

The Hawaii Supreme Court threw out Friday a proposed state constitutional amendment to raise money for public schools by establishing a surcharge on investment real property.

Hawaii’s four counties sued to block the measure while it was defended by state Attorney General Russell Suzuki. He said voters should be allowed to decide the matter.

The high court’s ruling came too late to stop the proposal from being printed on ballots for Election Day. The judges ordered that the state’s chief elections officer issue a public statement that the ballot question is invalid and that any votes for or against it would not be counted and would have no impact.

The question that will appear on ballots will say: “Shall the Legislature be authorized to establish, as provided by law, a surcharge on investment real property to be used to support public education?”

In a written ruling issued Friday, the justices said that the ballot question did not comply with state law in “that the language and meaning of the ballot question be clear and not misleading.”

The Hawaii State Teachers Association lobbied heavily for the ballot measure, arguing that Hawaii public schools are badly in need of additional funding. The union has called the counties’ lawsuit “frivolous.”

The union issued a statement expressing disappointment with the ruling.

“This has been a multiyear fight to fund our schools and get the constitutional amendment on the ballot,” said HSTA President Corey Rosenlee. “While we are sad about the ruling, there is still an urgent need that students have qualified teachers and sufficient school funding to provide our keiki with the learning environment they deserve. The fight for our schools does not end with the Supreme Court ruling; all of Hawaii must ask that our elected leaders work to ensure that our schools are properly funded.”

House of Representatives Speaker Scott Saiki issued a statement late Friday afternoon. It said: “It is unfortunate that the Supreme Court is not allowing the public to vote on this question after the Legislature vetted it over the past two years.”

Gov. David Ige said “the court’s ruling on the Legislature’s amendment means we must keep searching for a way to support the dedicated teachers and staff who make a difference every day in classrooms around the state.”

“I am committed to doing just that,” he said in a statement Friday.

County officials argued the proposal was misleading and vague, and there were no guarantees that money raised would go solely for education. Other questions were raised about whether the measure could have unintended consequences, including affecting the counties’ bond ratings and adversely impact people whose homes have appreciated many times their original value.

The Hawaii Constitution authorizes counties to levy property taxes. The amendment would have had Hawaii join all other states in using property taxes to finance public education.

Real property taxes are the largest source of revenue for the counties.

The Department of Education had hoped the surcharge would generate $500 million.

Rosenlee said the current, underfunded situation for public schools is “unacceptable.”

“We have more than 1,000 classrooms that lack a qualified teacher, crumbling facilities and too many of our students are denied learning opportunities based on their special needs,” he said. “We have heard throughout this campaign the loud voice of the community to improve our schools. While there might have been disagreements on the amendment itself, there is still a strong desire from our community to invest in education.”

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