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Hotel taxes are eyed for 1-way tickets for homeless

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    A House bill aims to set aside $2 million a year in hotel taxes to send the homeless camped in resort areas home to the mainland. Homeless tents were set up around Gateway Park in Kakaako recently.

The state’s hotel taxes could support repatriation efforts by the private sector to return homeless people in resort areas to the mainland under a proposal lawmakers are considering.

House Bill 2012 would set aside up to $2 million a year in transient accommodations tax, or TAT, revenues to fund homeless initiatives in “tourist and resort areas.” The state collected more than $508 million in TAT last fiscal year.

The roughly $20 million a year the state provides for various homeless initiatives does not include funds for one-way plane tickets to the mainland. Scott Morishige, the governor’s coordinator on homelessness, estimates about 10 percent of the state’s 7,200 homeless population — or about 700 — are “new arrivals” from out of state.

The bill aims to support an existing repatriation program run by the Hawaii Lodging &Tourism Association, which awards grants to nonprofits across the state to help cover the cost of airfare. To be eligible, homeless individuals must have a family member or friend in the destination state to vouch for them and agree to pay 50 percent of the airfare cost.

Between 2014 and 2016 the program helped 340 homeless individuals in Waikiki return to the mainland, said HLTA President and CEO Mufi Hannemann.

Under HB 2012 the Hawaii Tourism Authority would have to work with the Hawaii Lodging &Tourism Association on any initiatives, and every tax dollar would have to be matched dollar for dollar by the private sector.

House Tourism Committee Chairman Richard Onishi, a lead sponsor of the measure, said the repatriation program is one example of what could be supported.

“This would be project-based funding, so there would have to be a proposal for a project. It’s not a complaint-resolution type of program,” Onishi (D, South Hilo-Keaau-Honuapo) said.

“They already are doing it using private funding,” he said of HLTA’s repatriation program. “We just felt the taxes collected from the industry, the TAT taxes, should go more toward helping to support the tourism industry and this problem with homelessness in tourist and resort areas.”

Onishi’s committee held a public hearing on the bill Tuesday, where testimony was mostly in support.

Morishige said while he supports the idea of providing more resources to address homelessness, he has concerns about not knowing the “long-term outcomes” of people who are returned to the mainland.

He said the organizations the HLTA works with — the Institute for Human Serv­ices on Oahu, Family Life Center on Maui and Kauai Economic Opportunity — do not report data to the state on repatriated individuals.

“We could be, through this program, paying to send people to the U.S. mainland only to have them return to Hawaii possibly three months, six months later. But we don’t know,” Morishige said.

“We just want to make sure that whatever public resources are dedicated to this, that they’re aligned with the other resources the state is currently committing to this,” he said. “We’ve taken a very intentional approach of trying to invest in programs that are housing-focused, that get people into permanent housing.”

Onishi postponed until next week a vote on the measure by his committee. He said he wants to amend the bill to address comments by the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, which raised concerns about accountability of the funds.

“Earmarking revenues merely absolves elected officials from setting priorities. If the money were appropriated, lawmakers would have to evaluate the real or actual needs of each program,” the foundation said in written testimony.

Onishi said he plans to add a requirement for an annual report to the Legislature detailing how TAT funds are spent for homelessness programs.

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