Several hundred people gathered at the state Capitol in downtown Honolulu on Wednesday morning to kick off the opening of this year’s legislative session, in which lawmakers are expecting spirited debates on issues of rail financing, “death with dignity,” overcrowded jails, affordable housing and the state’s ongoing homeless problem.
Senate and House lawmakers opened the new session with two hours of prayers, speeches and parliamentary procedures in their respective chambers amid koa desks decked out in floral arrangements. Live music was provided during breaks for lawmakers, their families and a full gallery of spectators, including performances by Taste of Harmony, Raiatea Helm, Kahaluu Ukulele Band, Kauai artists Loke Sasil and Shay Marcello, and Na Hoku Hanohano nominee Shar Carillo.
Gov. David Ige, as well as former Govs. Neil Abercrombie, John Waihee, George Ariyoshi and Ben Cayetano attended the ceremonies, with Ige meeting with reporters afterward to discuss this year’s legislative priorities.
Remarkably, the Senate is reconvening this year without representation from a minority party. Former Sen. Sam Slom, who in recent years was the lone Republican in the Senate representing Hawaii Kai, Diamond Head and Kahala, lost his re-election bid to former Honolulu City Councilman Stanley Chang in November. All 25 Hawaii senators are now Democrats.
The Senate’s Democratic leadership joked about their monopoly status, while also assuring reporters afterward that there would still be robust debate on bills this year.
“You have those that are blue dogs and a little more fiscally conservative like myself and those that are extremely liberal in what they would like to do,” said Senate President Ron Kouchi. “So we will still see the debate between the Democrats.”
Runaway train costs
It was clear from opening ceremonies that the Honolulu rail project is foremost on the minds of lawmakers. The project’s price tag has soared from $5.26 billion as recently as 2012 to potentially as much as $9.5 billion today, according to the latest financial plan.
Both Kouchi and House Speaker Joe Souki have signaled their support for the project, but it remains to be seen what type of financing plan, including general excise tax extensions or increases, may be approved.
“Rail in one way or another is going to come to a conclusion in this legislative session and that will be certainly occupying much of the time during the session,” Kouchi said during opening remarks. “I personally have supported rail. I hope we find a path, but we are not close to finding that path yet. And we certainly need a lot more information for us to be able to make our final judgment on the rail issue.”
Two years ago, the Legislature extended the general excise tax surcharge by five years so that it would expire at the end of 2027 in order to cover mounting costs, but only after Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell weathered intense questioning over the project’s financials. The mayor will have to make his case to the Legislature once more this year for why the tax should be extended again. The surcharge provides about $230 million a year for the project, but is no longer adequate for covering costs.
Souki said he supports plans to make the half-percent excise tax surcharge for the rail project permanent to help finance construction of the line, but also said he wants to reduce the surcharge. To make up the difference, Souki said the city should help pay for the construction from its own treasury.
“It does come at a high cost, but make no mistake, rail is the key to the future of Oahu,” Souki said. The House leader has said he is speaking only for himself because his fellow Democrats have not yet taken a formal position on the rail excise tax.
Caldwell, who watched the proceedings from the House floor, told reporters after the session he has concerns about reducing the excise surcharge and making up the difference with property taxes. He noted that tourists pay the surcharge.
If lawmakers reduce the surcharge, “what that means is the tourists get a break, because they pay about a third of the (general excise tax), and the rest would have to be made up by the residents of Oahu,” Caldwell said. “That means the taxpayers of this island would be paying more money than they’d otherwise have to.”
Souki also said he supports reducing the 10 percent administrative fee the state charges the city for collecting the excise surcharge to 5 percent. The state has earned millions of dollars from that fee since the surcharge went into effect in 2007.
Ige told reporters after the opening, “I do know that we have to complete the (rail) project, and it really is about coming together on what we can afford to commit to the project and how can we define a project that we can support, so I think that that’s the key.”
Death, cost of living
In opening remarks, Souki also urged his colleagues to approve a “death with dignity” measure, although he recently acknowledged in an interview it may take more than one year to convince the 76-member Legislature to approve the idea.
Souki, 83, promised to introduce his own bill for what some describe as “compassionate choices” in dying, meaning establishing a way to provide legal medical aid in dying for people who are terminally ill and mentally capable.
John Radcliffe, a longtime lobbyist who is advocating for a death-with-dignity proposal, sat in the front row on the floor of the state House and applauded when Souki spoke of the bill. Radcliffe suffers from liver cancer and is a longtime friend of Souki.
Lawmakers will also be grappling again this legislative session with the state’s high cost of living, lack of affordable housing and homelessness problem.
House Minority Leader Beth Fukumoto, who is the highest ranking elected Republican in the state, warned her fellow lawmakers that millennials are “a growing demographic in this state who can no longer afford to live in a place that we grew up in and love,” adding, “For us, Hawaii is not just paradise, it’s our home, and we can’t afford it anymore.”
Ige will propose an increase in the state’s gasoline tax, weight tax and registration fee, and “I’m sure there will be other tax increases for us to consider,” Fukumoto said. “I hope that, if the majority of this body chooses to act on those increases, that you will do so with caution and consider making those increases temporary.”
She added: “This session, we’re facing a sizable budget deficit, and the natural inclination of government is always to raise revenues and cut spending to find immediate solutions to an impending problem. We will need to take some of those actions, Mr. Speaker, but we’d be doing a disservice to the people of Hawaii and future generations if that is all we do.”
Fukumoto also said lawmakers need to do more to cope with the homelessness crisis and Hawaii’s lack of affordable housing, and said Republicans are ready to work with the Democrats to develop a comprehensive plan. There are now only six Republican House members left in the Legislature.
“By 2025, we will be short nearly 65,000 housing units in our state, and many of our local families will be priced out of their communities if we don’t increase our affordable housing inventory,” Fukumoto said.