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Road to better highways is paved with special funds


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POSTED: Sunday, January 25, 2009

That wily legislative veteran Rep. Joe Souki is right. Souki, the House Transportation Committee chairman, and his Senate colleague, J. Kalani English, last week were hosted by Gov. Linda Lingle to unveil a $4 billion highway construction plan.

Souki (D, Waihee-Wailuku) believes in pump-priming, spending money to make money, transportation projects from rail to roads and is not afraid to say a hike in taxes will help us at the end of the day.

So when Souki signed on to the Lingle road plan it didn't bother him that it would cost taxpayers an additional $170 a year in higher taxes. Souki laughed and predicted that Sen. Sam Slom would not like it.

  Slom (R, Diamond Head-Hawaii Kai) has fashioned an entire legislative career out of voting "No." His most forceful and gleeful negative votes go for all things related to special funds. He doesn't like putting money in special funds, he doesn't like taking money out of special funds and he doesn't like the idea that a special fund is a special place in the budget reserved for a project that cannot be touched.

"I am totally opposed to it," says Slom, who is one of just eight Republicans in the Legislature.

Slom says that many of the $4 billion worth of highway projects are already on the books, but have not been started because the highway fund, one of those abhorred special funds, has been raided so many times that it is projected to be in deficit next year.

"The people who caused this problem are sitting in this room now," Slom says as he gestures around the Senate floor. "They raided the fund and that is why we are short."

Back in the good old days of fiscal 2006, the highway fund was packing a $365 million surplus, but because of planned legislative deductions, by fiscal 2010, the fund will be $95 million in the hole.

  Back in 2006, the state budget grabbed $95 million in highway fund money and spent it on other construction projects. The state gets highway money by charging a tax on the sale of gas, by tacking fees onto your car registration and by charging tourists a fee to rent a car.

Senate President Colleen Hanabusa, who is mulling over a run for governor in 2010 and so is not as gleeful as Souki is about raising taxes, says she doesn't know if this plan will work.

"I am not sure how the public will react. It is a lot of money - $170 per person more," Hanabusa said.

Souki, however, predicts that the voters are going to love their new roads and will think of the higher prices for gas and car registration as fair.

We will see if Souki can predict taxpayer sentiment as well as he can Slom's.

 

Richard Borreca writes on politics every Sunday in the Star-Bulletin. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)