Senate President Robert Bunda waved to the gallery before yesterday's start of the legislative session. He is floating the idea of a transit authority with power to raise money for rail transit.

Transit plans tied
directly to taxes

Legislators open the session
divided over funding a rail line

Trains and taxes: One can't stay on track without the other.

Democrats in the House and Senate opened the 60-day legislative session yesterday saying it was time to face up to Oahu's traffic problems.

While state and Honolulu officials from Gov. Linda Lingle to former Mayor Frank Fasi have prescribed some form of rapid transit to ease Honolulu's traffic problems, supporters have not been able to come up with a way to pay the estimated $2 billion needed to build a rail-transit line.

Now lawmakers are saying rail transit will have to come with a tax increase.

"We will be looking to empower the counties with the authority to levy a county tax (general excise tax), with the proceeds to be used solely for public transit services within their county," said Rep. Marcus Oshiro, Democratic leader.

House Speaker Calvin Say told lawmakers in his opening-day speech that while fixing traffic problems was high on the to-do list, solutions would not come quickly.

"There are no instant fixes. ... It may well take the two years of this legislative session to develop good answers. If that is what it takes, so be it," said Say (D, St. Louis Heights-Wilhelmina Rise).

In the Senate, President Robert Bunda is floating the idea of a transit authority with power to raise the needed money or taxes to pay for a rail transit plan.

"A statewide transit authority would provide the financial muscle, coordination and intrastate cooperation that would bridge differences in philosophy and geography to bring tangible solutions," said Bunda (D, Wahiawa-Pupukea).

While Democrats lean toward a transit tax increase or a transit authority, Republicans are more cautious. Sen. Fred Hemmings, GOP leader, said taxpayers cannot afford a new tax.

"The concept of a rail system is something we should talk about, but at this point it doesn't make sense until we solve other problems," said Hemmings (R, Lanikai-Waimanalo).

Instead of a rail system, Hemmings said taxpayers could afford "the hundreds of little solutions, such as fixing the mistakes in the highways system, more contraflow lanes. The combined impact of the small changes make a huge impact."

In the House, Rep. Galen Fox, GOP leader, also said that while a transit plan is needed, it would be hard to support a tax increase.

Fox (R, Waikiki) said he might support a temporary tax increase but not a permanent increase.

"I am not in favor of a carte blanche increase. It should be linked to transit for a limited amount of time, and it should be for the amount needed to build the system," Fox said.

Also, he said, a tax increase should be designed as a ballot question so taxpayers would be able to vote on whether they wanted to pay for a transit system.

Gov. Linda Lingle has previously supported a rail line built above portions of the existing state freeway system, and originally said she would propose a county-option tax increase.

But after failing to win the support of her own GOP legislative caucus, Lingle withdrew the proposal.


Lawmakers face thorny session

The 23rd state Legislature opened yesterday. Here are some of the issues the 76 legislators will consider:

Transportation: There are new calls to build a $2 billion mass-transit system. Funding is the big question mark.

Housing: Soaring housing prices are leading legislators and Gov. Linda Lingle to say this is the year to make it easier to build affordable housing. One area of disagreement is whether to retain the state Land Use Commission, with its power to designate lands for development.

Drugs: Lingle and Lt. Gov. James "Duke" Aiona are calling for tougher penalties for drug abuse, while Democrats in the Legislature are questioning why Lingle has not released all the state funds they appropriated last year for drug treatment programs.

Taxes: Senate leaders say the strong economy means they should consider lowering taxes or expanding the state income tax brackets. Lingle has said the tax structure should be changed to allow the lowest wage earners to get the same deduction as they get under federal taxes.

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