Final hotel tax for rail bill set today

HILO — A bill increasing the hotel tax statewide to bail out the vastly over-budget Honolulu rail project advanced in the House on Thursday after narrowly clearing its committees the night before.

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HILO — A bill increasing the hotel tax statewide to bail out the vastly over-budget Honolulu rail project advanced in the House on Thursday after narrowly clearing its committees the night before.

Tensions remain high as the Legislature scrambles to pass a $2.4 billion measure in five days. The bill increases the transient accommodations tax by 1 percent in order to shorten the time a half-percent surcharge on Honolulu’s general excise tax remains in effect.

The full House voted 38-8 Thursday, with five members absent, to forward the bill on a procedural measure to its final reading today.

Of the Big Island representatives, Rep. Mark Nakashima, D-Hamakua, voted yes. Reps. Richard Creagan, D-Ka‘u; Cindy Evans, D-North Kona; Richard Onishi, D-Hilo, and Joy San Buenaventura, D-Puna, voted yes with reservations. Rep. Nicole Lowen, D-Kona, and Chris Todd, D-Hilo, voted no.

A yes vote with reservations counts as a yes, but is sometimes used to signal the leadership that those members are still unsure about their support or that they don’t like parts of the bill but want to vote yes anyway. In all, six members voted yes with reservations.

Big Island representatives have been torn between toeing the line and representing their constituents, who seem overwhelmingly opposed to the bill.

“Legislation is the art of compromise,” House Speaker Scott Saiki said in a statement. “This is a difficult issue for everyone, but the consequences of inaction or the lack of a timely resolution pose significant risks for people on all islands and in every county. The Legislature and the counties must work together to strengthen our relationship to serve our mutual constituents to the best of our abilities.”

Opposing House members chafed at the leadership’s refusal to allow amendments to be heard on the floor. The bill is expected to pass today without amendments.

Having crafted the bill before the special session and presented it as a fait accompli, legislative leaders have borne down hard on their legislators. Those speaking too freely could lose coveted chairmanships or otherwise be unable to help their constituents.

“If you are in the majority, you generally follow the leader,” said Rep. Gene Ward, one of five Republicans in the House. He voted no on the bill.

“It’s about being obedient. It’s about being a team player,” he added.

Following a tense joint committee hearing that stretched into the evening Wednesday, the votes were 4-2 in the Transportation Committee, which had one member absent, and 8-6 in the Finance Committee.

Two dissenters were previously removed from the Finance Committee to ensure the measure passed. The only Big Islander on the committe, Lowen, voted no on the bill.

San Buenaventura, on the Transportation Committee, found herself one word away from putting a major wrench in the works. She was the only committee member voting yes with reservations.

Had she voted no, the bill would have been stuck in committee on a 3-3 tie and may not have made it to the House floor in time to conclude the five-day special session. A bill can be recalled from committee 20 days after it was referred there, under the House rules, said Chief Clerk Brian Takeshita.

It would have taken extraordinary measures to get the bill out to the floor and could have lengthened the special session, he said.

San Buenaventura said her conversation with House Speaker Scott Saiki indicated the speaker could have simply discharged the bill from committee on the same day the House voted.

She said she voted yes with reservations in order to move the bill out so all members of the House had a chance to vote.

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San Buenaventura remained undecided how she will vote today. She’s walking a tightrope between building relationships in the Legislature and feeling pressure from constituents.

“That’s the problem with this neighbor islands versus Oahu thing,” she said about neighbor islanders holding far fewer legislative seats than Oahu. “If we go down that path, we will lose.”

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