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State lawmaker loses leadership position after opposing rail bailout

  • COURTESY PHOTOS

    State Rep. Cindy Evans, center, will be replaced by Rep. Della Au Belatti, right, as House majority leader. Rep. Mark Nakashima, left, will take over Belatti’s old job of House vice speaker. Evans will take over Nakashima’s former post as chairman of the House Economic Development & Business Committee.

House Majority Leader Cindy Evans is being removed from her leadership post after Evans voted against the bailout bill for the Honolulu rail project last month.

Evans offered to resign as majority leader this summer because she voted against Senate Bill 4, the rail bailout bill that will provide another $2.37 billion to help fund the completion of the 20-mile Honolulu train line.

The House majority leader is the second-highest-­ranking member of the leadership team, and lawmakers in that job are expected to support the positions of the Democratic caucus. That includes supporting the bills that emerge from House committees, which are controlled by members of the Democratic House majority.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said in a written statement today that “after much consideration,” he accepted the resignation of Evans (D, Kaupulehu­-Waimea-Halaula).

Saiki said he named Rep. Della Au Belatti (D, Moiliili-Makiki-Tantalus) as the new House majority leader, and appointed Rep. Mark Nakashima (D, Kukuihaele-Laupahoehoe-North Hilo) to Belatti’s old job of House vice speaker.

Evans will take over Nakashima’s former position as chairman of the House Economic Development & Business Committee.

Evans, 65, was officially named the House majority member in late August. She was first elected to the state House in 2002, and was House majority floor leader from 2015 until earlier this year.

This is the third shuffle of House leadership positions this year, including a reorganization in May that allowed Saiki to replace former House Speaker Joe Souki in the top House job.

The rail bailout bill proved to be particularly controversial on the neighbor islands because it will increase the statewide hotel room tax by 1 percentage point to 10.25 percent to help fund the rail project.

That tax increase has been strongly criticized by some neighbor island residents who saw it as a move to force the neighbor islands to help pay for Honolulu’s financially troubled rail project. Some believe it puts an unfair tax burden on communities that had no say over whether rail should be built, and will tax residents who might never ride the rail line.

Rail supporters countered that the vast majority of hotel taxes are paid by tourists, not by Hawaii residents, and point out that Oahu subsidizes neighbor island projects through the use of gasoline taxes, weight taxes and registration fees that are collected in Honolulu.

Evans told House leaders before the final vote in special session on Sept. 1 that she would vote against SB 4.

Saiki has said there are two “schools of thought” on the issue. Some argue that on major issues such as the vote on the rail bill, all lawmakers should be free to vote their conscience. Others believe that because the majority leader runs the Democratic caucus, that person has a responsibility to support and defend the caucus’ positions.

Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English (D, Molokai-­Lanai-East Maui) also voted against SB 4, but a spokeswoman for the Senate said that body has no policy requiring the majority leader vote for the rail bill.

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