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Legislature meets Lingle in a battle of the budgets


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POSTED: Sunday, April 12, 2009

Welcome to “;We Hate Taxes Week”; and the accompanying legislative plan to raise nearly every state tax lawmakers can find.

Conservatives and tax protesters hope to use the April 15 federal tax deadline to focus attention on Hawaii's role in hosting the last event in a national campaign of “;tea parties.”;

The idea, according to the event planners, is that taxpayers are paying too much already and everyone should wave tea bags and look vexed.

As much fun as it is to dislike taxes, raising taxes is also the top option at the Legislature, now fostering the mother of all tax sessions.

Gov. Linda Lingle got into the game this week, staking out areas she feels are off limits for tax increases. Lingle is aiming her veto pen at bills that raise the general excise tax, state income tax or the hotel room tax.

Excise tax increases are regressive, income tax hikes hurt small-business owners and the hotel industry needs help, not more taxes, Lingle reasons.

The Democratic leaders in the Legislature see the opposite picture — a budget that is bleeding red ink and no way out of tax increases.

Already nonprofit programs across Hawaii feel the effect of the state budget cuts. As state funding grew to nurture programs from social services to cultural programs, programs expanded and Hawaii became a more humane, civilized and caring place.

Now all those programs are shrinking and Hawaii's social fabric will be tested. When welfare payments run out before the end of the month, when doctors are not available for the sick and counselors no longer are paid to help the mentally ill — what happens?

Advocates say we better learn to love soup kitchens and refrigerator art, because aid to the needy is drying up as fast as Bishop Museum is closing its doors.

If the antidote is not tax increases, it is Lingle's call to cut public worker salaries and benefits. Private workers across the state already understand the “;do more with less”; business model. Lingle says it is time that state and county workers learned it as well.

The next move is up to the Legislature. Will Democrats go for tax increases or allow Lingle to negotiate salary cuts in advance of actual collective bargaining? Or will they tempt Lingle's veto?

The result is a budget stalemate much like the one today, except it could drag out all summer.

And then next year, the tax protest will not be on April 15, but Nov. 2, the date of the next general election.

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Richard Borreca writes on politics every week in the Star-Bulletin. You can reach him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).