WHT editorial: Lava lessons — Council must implement GET surcharge

Kilauea’s latest lava flow has illuminated more than just the night skies over Puna.

The volcano is teaching harsh lessons across an array of topics, from where the county should allow residential development to why the entire state would benefit from an economy not so hopelessly reliant on tourism.

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Yet the Hawaii County Council has decided to take up a seat in the back of the island’s proverbial classroom, where it has apparently fallen asleep.

Perhaps a little old-school knuckle-rapping would prove useful to rouse council members in time to absorb one of the most obvious facts Kilauea has to communicate — Hawaii Island simply must diversify its revenue streams.

And the way to do it? Pass the general excise tax surcharge the Legislature has afforded you before it’s too late.

The council showed some drowsy signs of life when it resurrected the latest version of the surcharge Thursday after killing it two days before. The 0.25 percent surcharge, which would generate roughly $20 million annually, would go into effect on Jan. 1, 2019 and end Dec. 31, 2020.

Proposed under Bill 159, the measure was a compromise. The Legislature has been willing to allow a 0.5 percent bump to the GET, every cent of which currently collected in Hawaii County goes to support state spending. That version of the surcharge would have expired in 2030.

The council will look again at the more moderate hike in a special session scheduled for Friday, one day shy of the state-imposed deadline on implementing a surcharge.

Council members have already made a grievous error. It’s too late, of course, but what they should have done was pass the full bump the state afforded.

Now, the council has one last chance to mitigate its blunder and generate a sorely needed $40 million in revenue over the next two years. And they’d better take it.

We’re aware this stance isn’t popular. Who the heck wants more taxes?

Our roads are neglected. Our transit system is broken. There are too many homeless in Kailua Village. Dealing with these problems requires money — a lot more money than Hawaii County has.

And it’s all too clear the state isn’t willing to part with any more of the transient accommodations tax than it already has — at least not until that boondoggle of a rail project is completed in Honolulu.

Unreasonable will be those who vehemently oppose tax increases, advocate slashing government programs and workers, and then expect the county to solve all these problems with fewer employees operating with fewer dollars. But the reasonable must understand that a trade-off has to exist.

Right now, today, we need more money. And it can’t keep coming from the same old source. That leaves us far too vulnerable to the predatory whims of nature or the global economy or whatever else decides it wants to interrupt the program.

Hawaii County pulls around 75 percent of all its revenue from property taxes. Kilauea’s fury has swallowed more than 500 homes and with them, $5 million from a county budget that was already stretched to the limit.

If the council doesn’t do what it still has time to do, a great many more services will go. Summer fun programs that single, working mothers rely on will be slashed. Those programs aren’t handouts; they’re constructive childcare options for people who contribute to our communities. Where’s the aloha in shuttering them?

Vital recycling programs will be shut down. How does the only island state in the nation, impacted more by pollution and climate change than perhaps any other, justify that one?

And who’s to say this natural disaster is finished wreaking havoc, economic and otherwise? And even if Kilauea’s flows do stop tomorrow, there’s far greater costs than this $5 million to come.

Hawaii state Rep. Joy San Buenaventura of Puna said it best in an interview with West Hawaii Today earlier this week.

“We’re giving you folks an opportunity to help your constituents by doing this,” she said of the GET surcharge option. “It’s highly unlikely we’re going to give you this opportunity again. … We are facing an unprecedented disaster, and before this you were already broke.”

Understood, the GET is a regressive tax. It burdens the least fortunate among us the most and will add an extra 26 cents in taxes to every $100 purchase. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it does add up. It is meaningful.

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However, it’s simply time we accept the hand Kilauea has dealt us. An extra $40 million per year through the end of the next decade would have proven invaluable. An extra $20 million over the next two years to help subsidize the economic recovery of Hawaii Island without drastic cuts to vital services is an absolute necessity.

Election year or not, council members, we need you to come through for us Friday. The health of our entire island depends on it.