Hawaii County Mayor Billy Kenoi has a laundry list of projects he wants the state Legislature to consider during the 2014 session that began Wednesday.
But he emphasized at a hearing of the Senate Ways and Means and House Finance committees that the projects he’s outlined are the responsibility of the state, not the county.
“The county is managing and is capable and has the resources to provide county services,” Kenoi told West Hawaii Today before the hearing. “We just ask the state Legislature to provide state services.”
Kenoi cited improving Highway 130, the Keaau-Pahoa Highway, adding more Civil Defense sirens, increasing statewide juvenile intake and assessment centers, funding the University of Hawaii at Hilo College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences Building, funding the primary care training and rural residency program and improving Kona International Airport.
While the mayors were making their traditional presentations of funding priorities to the state money committees, the committee members were more interested in talking about the Hawaii Conference of Mayors’ request to be allowed to add an up to 1 percent surcharge on the general excise tax. West Hawaii Today had an exclusive report Wednesday about the last-minute addition to the county priority packages.
State lawmakers were leery of giving up part of their taxing authority to the counties, saying it would limit their ability to raise the GET for their own state programs.
“The GE tax is within the kuleana of the state,” said House Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke, a Democrat representing parts of Honolulu. “The property tax is the kuleana of the counties.”
They also pointed out that when they gave the City and County of Honolulu permission to add a 0.5 percent surcharge on the GET, it was supposed to be a temporary measure, to fund its rail transit project. The other counties had the option to raise theirs as well, but none did so.
And, they wondered, why county councils didn’t ask for the surcharge in their legislative package. For the surcharge to be imposed, it would have to be approved by the councils after a public hearing.
The Hawaii State Association of Counties executive board approved adding the mayors’ request to its legislative package at the same time the legislative hearing was going on Wednesday afternoon.
Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa said the mayors prefer a stable revenue source that doesn’t require them to continue trying to prevail on the Legislature to give up more of the transient accommodations tax. The Legislature capped the counties’ share several years ago, leaving them scrambling to make up the loss.
“We have to be able to plan in advance,” Arakawa said.
Rep. Gene Ward, a Hawaii Kai Republican, said asking the Legislature to allow a tax hike during an election year may be a difficult proposition, even if the Legislature was only giving counties the ability to do so, not actually raising taxes itself.
“This is quite a shift in policy,” Ward said of the GET proposal.
“We would be accountable to our voters,” Kenoi responded. “We would shield that from the Legislature.”
The GET issue may not get much traction in the Legislature, but there’s still hope for county governments.
House Speaker Joseph Souki, a Maui Democrat, in his opening day speech Wednesday asked House members to consider removing the TAT cap.
“In this strong economy, should we not be thinking about a greater partnership with our counties, who provide much of the services that directly support tourism?” he asked lawmakers. “They are the ones who maintain our roads and parks and provide the law enforcement officers and first responders who directly serve our visitors as well as our kamaaina.”