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Hawaii Supreme Court to hear challenge on constitutional amendment question

Sophie Cocke
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Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong makes comments after oral arguments on Sept. 7 regarding a complaint filed by Hawaii’s four counties against the state relating to the proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the legislature to impose real property taxes. Behind her is Nicolette Winter, Deputy Corporation Counsel, and Patrick Wong, Head attorney, Maui Corporation Counsel. Hawaii’s four counties seek to invalidate a Nov. 6 ballot question that asks voters if they want to give the state the power to tax property in support of public education.

The Hawaii Supreme Court accepted a request today to hear a petition from Hawaii’s four counties seeking to invalidate a Nov. 6 ballot question that asks voters if they want to give the state the power to tax property in support of public education.

Oral arguments are scheduled for Oct. 18, around the time the Office of Elections is expected to begin sending out mail-in ballots and days before early walk-in voting locations open throughout the state.

The decision by the state Supreme Court to hear the petition comes a month after First Circuit Judge Jeff Crabtree ruled against a motion by the four counties seeking a preliminary injunction that would block the ballot question.

Crabtree said that the counties didn’t meet the standards required for granting a preliminary injunction, including a requirement that they are likely to prevail in the case. Rather, the judge said the counties are likely to lose. Attorneys for the counties then took the unusual move of filing a “petition for extraordinary writ” with the state Supreme Court.

The petition comes amid an escalating political battle over the ballot measure between the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which supports it, and the counties and business interests which have teamed up to oppose it.

The counties have argued that the ballot question is vague and doesn’t make clear to voters that it would provide the state with additional taxing authority. Currently, only the counties have the authority to levy property taxes.

“The counties filed this petition for extraordinary writ so that we could argue the merits of our case before the state’s highest court, and we are pleased that chance has now been afforded to us,” said Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong in a press release. “Hawai‘i residents should know exactly what they are voting for and the counties believe that’s clearly not the case since the question that will appear on ballots proposes a new tax, but does not mention the word ‘tax.’ The question that is being asked also fails to define ‘investment real property,’ which would be the basis of the new tax.”

The HSTA says that additional revenue is needed to support dilapidated schools and increases to teachers’ salaries.

“The counties lost before and they are going to lose again,” HSTA President Corey Rosenlee said during a press conference earlier in the day. “This is not some measure that just popped up. This is a measure that was passed by every single legislator, except one. It went through multiple committees … We strongly believe that the county is wasting everyone’s time, they are wasting taxpayers’ money to do this.”

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