Two members of the powerful House Finance Committee were abruptly replaced Sunday in a partial House reorganization launched just a day before the start of a high-stakes special session to try to bail out the financially troubled Honolulu rail project.
State Reps. James Tokioka and Isaac Choy, who have both been publicly critical of House leaders’ proposals for funding rail, were notified by Vice Speaker Della Au Belatti on Sunday morning that they will no longer serve on the Finance Committee.
Choy (D, Manoa-Punahou-Moiliili) contends he and Tokioka were removed to grease the tracks for the controversial rail bailout bill, and to minimize discussion and criticism of the measure this week.
“I think they want the hearing to go very, very smoothly and quietly without any debate or discussion, or any kind of thought,” Choy said.
The five-day special session of the state Legislature convenes today in an effort to provide billions of dollars in additional funding to rescue the city’s partially built, 20-mile rail project.
Lawmakers will formally introduce Senate Bill 4 to raise the statewide hotel room tax by 1 percentage point for 13 years to raise $1.04 billion, and to extend the half-percent excise tax surcharge on Oahu for another three years to raise another $1.32 billion.
In all the bill would raise $2.37 billion in new tax revenue for the rail line. The House and Senate are scheduled to open the special session at 10 a.m., and legislators have scheduled the first public hearing for the rail measure for 3 p.m. today at the state Capitol auditorium.
There will be hearings in both the House and Senate to allow the public to testify on the rail bailout bill, but lawmakers said it took them months to negotiate the new rail bailout package, and it would be difficult to make any major changes now.
The city has a Sept. 15 deadline to show the Federal Transit Administration how it plans to raise the money to cover the project’s budget shortfall. House Speaker Scott Saiki said it is “very unlikely” lawmakers could negotiate a new version of the bill that makes significant changes to the bailout package and have it approved in time to meet that deadline.
Belatti said there will be ample opportunity for debate on the rail bill during the special session this week, and said Tokioka and Choy were removed as part of a larger reshuffling of some House committees. She said state Reps. Beth Fukumoto (D, Mililani) and Sam Satoru Kong (D, Aiea) will now be assigned to the Finance Committee.