HONOLULU — Hawaii House Speaker Joseph Souki started the 2014 legislative session Wednesday by calling for lawmakers to remove a cap on how much counties can share in the state’s hotel room taxes, a move that would be welcomed by mayors on the islands.
Souki said the state should think about building a greater partnership with the local governments that give services that help tourists.
“They are the ones who maintain our roads and parks and provide the law enforcement officers and first responders who serve our visitors as well as our” residents, he said.
Mayors have long called for the cap to be removed so the counties can pay for services used by tourists while they’re on the islands.
“The gesture is not only long overdue, but should be viewed as a better long-term investment in our counties and in our No. 1 industry,” Souki said.
House and Senate lawmakers, draped in lei that filled the chamber floors with scents of fresh flowers, used the start of session to welcome each other back to the Capitol and give a sneak peek at the issues they’ll consider between now and May.
Legislators are considering bills on a wide range of issues — everything from green energy to government transparency. Lawmakers filed paperwork on bills to legalize casual marijuana use and make kindergarten mandatory, then referred the bills to smaller committees where details will be discussed.
On marijuana, Souki said the state should establish dispensaries where patients can buy legal medicinal marijuana with a prescription.
“We need to fix that gap in the law before we talk about anything else,” he said, drawing applause and chuckles in a chamber of mostly Democrats.
He also called for decreasing personal income taxes by allowing an increase implemented during a severe budget crisis to sunset as scheduled in 2015. He said the state should make up the difference by enforcing tax requirements for travel companies that do business on the Internet and increasing taxes on wealthy seniors who draw more than $100,000 yearly from pensions.
Across the Capitol, Senate President Donna Mercado Kim said senators spent most of the legislative offseason learning about the complexities of issues, such as genetically modified foods, to make better decisions.
“We were very engaged during the interim, giving us a jump start on this session,” she said.
Kim has said she expects lawmakers to also consider bills on geothermal and solar energy, and defending Hawaii’s fragile environment from invasive species.
The process is taking place against the backdrop of midterm elections, which find several state lawmakers in key races and some voters angry over last year’s special session to pass gay marriage.
The House, which had a bruising special session last year en route to passing the law that allows same-sex couples to wed, showed small signs of gamesmanship between lawmakers in opposite parties. Rep. Bob McDermott, a Republican who fought hard against the bill and unsuccessfully challenged it in court, asked for a day to review committee assignments to make sure his party had balanced representation on them. He withdrew the request after a short recess.
Souki nearly ended the opening without allowing Rep. Aaron Johanson, the House minority leader, to speak. But he called lawmakers back to allow Johanson to read his prepared remarks.
“I’ll be brief and take the hint,” Johanson said.