A Divided Legislature Over Honolulu Rail Funding

Aug 31, 2017

The Special Legislative Session created some rifts among lawmakers on both sides of the issue. Senate President Ron Kouchi (podium) briefed the news media with supporters, U.S. Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa, Ways and Means Committee chair, Senator Donovan Dela Cruz, U.S. Senator Brian Schatz and House Speaker Scott Saiki.
Credit Wayne Yoshioka

Senate Bill 4 is nearing final passage during this week’s Special Legislative Session.   But funding Honolulu’s Rail Transit Project caused some clashes between lawmakers.   HPR’s Wayne Yoshioka reports.    

The one percent increase for the Transient Accommodations or Hotel Room Tax state-wide to partially fund O’ahu’s rail transit project is at the heart of the rift.  House Speaker Scott Saiki says healing those divisions should be the top priority.

“This issue has divided our state.  You know, the legislature against counties, counties versus counties, Leeward versus Windward, hotels versus individual taxpayers.  There really needs to be some focus and communication on how we are going to undo some of the divisions that have been created.”

Senate President Ron Kouchi conducted a retreat with all members Wednesday and believes the damage is not permanent.

“This issue has created great passion on both sides and so, I don’t see divisiveness in the sense that we would be unable to work together.”

Big Island Senator Kai Kahele strongly opposed using the TAT and believes it should not be shared with O’ahu.  But, he says he accepts the vote for TAT.

“Things have gotten testy the last few weeks.  But I sat down with certain colleagues and legislators to let them know that no matter what their decision was, that I wanted to make sure that our friendship was still there and that we would be able to put this behind us and move forward.”

House Speaker Emeritus, Joe Souki, says he doesn’t favor using the TAT because O’ahu gets the biggest share, nearly 45 percent.

“The divisiveness is mostly symbolic because the history has shown the legislature has not been too kind to the neighbor islands relative to the TAT.  They have cut the TAT down, they have not given a cost of living increase.  And even though this bill does provide for an increase inTAT, again, that’s a slap in the face.”

Manoa Representative Isaac Choy was removed from the House Finance Committee because he criticized strategies to fund rail.  He says many House members are going along to get along.

“Our new leadership has a style of leading by fear and my neighbor island colleagues are weighing whether to go along with leadership or possibly having some kind of retribution.  Whether it’s killing their bills, killing their CIP or not getting a chairmanship.  They’re weighing those alternatives versus the leadership’s rail funding proposal.”

Senator Kahele, meanwhile, is hoping the Special Session achieved its goal.

“God forbid if we have to ever come back here because the federal government and the FTA said this plan doesn’t meet the requirements that we outlined to you in the letter that we sent.  Then what are we gonna do.  We’ll see how it turns out.”

A final vote on Senate Bill 4 is scheduled Friday.  Wayne Yoshioka, HPR News.