Citizen advice is
valuable on bill
hiking excise tax

The controversial legislation
has strong pros and cons

Every few years, an issue arises that draws the attention of our entire state, with passionate views and strong opinions on both sides. We are facing such an issue now, with the question of whether to authorize the counties to raise the general excise tax to fund mass transit projects.

House Bill 1309 would give the counties the power to raise the GET for mass transit on Oahu and transportation systems on the neighbor islands by an additional 0.5 percent. They must then decide no later than Dec. 31 whether to exercise that power.

I have heard from hundreds of citizens and groups both opposing and supporting this bill. Supporters have told me of their declining quality of life because of the hours spent in their cars commuting to and from Honolulu, and have warned that we will have traffic gridlock on Oahu if we don't act now. Opponents question the cost and effectiveness of a fixed rail system and reasonably wonder about the wisdom of authorizing a tax increase for something they can't see or evaluate today.

The time to reach a decision on this bill is drawing near, and I want to share with everyone my thoughts as I make that decision. I must advise the Legislature by tomorrow if there is a possibility that I will veto the bill. I then must make the final decision whether to veto it by July 12.

Everyone brings their own perspective to this issue. Mine is that of a former neighbor island resident, county council member for 10 years and mayor of Maui County for eight years. That experience proved to me time and time again that local communities are in the best position to decide issues that affect them directly, such as traffic. This is the principle known as "home rule."

It is difficult for me to imagine an issue more suited for local decision making than the question of whether to raise taxes to pay for transit in a particular county. The county councils know best whether the benefit of mass transit to their communities outweighs the cost.

That said, I have some significant disagreements with HB 1309. Most notably, the bill assigns the power to collect the tax to the state, which will retain 10 percent of the proceeds. I believe that approach is inconsistent with home rule. If the tax is intended to fund county projects, the counties should administer the tax. Nor should the state be skimming 10 percent off the top, seemingly to pay for the cost of collection, but in reality to help fill the state's general fund to pay for non-transit-related projects.

It is because of these concerns that I have reached out to leaders in the House and Senate to discuss how to bring the counties back into the process. Those discussions are ongoing. Until I can be assured that these issues can be resolved, I will have serious misgivings about the bill.

No one wants to raise taxes. I think it's widely agreed, though, that traffic across the state, and on Oahu in particular, has reached a crisis stage. We have to address how people move throughout the islands. We're spending too much of our valuable time coming and going from our destinations. We need to reduce drive times and increase quality time with family and friends. Development has to be linked to our transportation system and the transportation system has to reflect our society's needs.

Whether the counties choose to address their needs by means of a rail system, ferries, bikeways or buses, the needs have to be addressed and decisions have to be made about how to pay for the solutions. The debate that we're in the middle of has produced invaluable insights, and raised the level of the discussion far above where it was when the Legislature convened in January. Please continue to let me know your thoughts.

Office of the Governor

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