Mayor rallies in
favor of transit

Mufi Hannemann cuts short
a trip to Tokyo and hopes
for a compromise

Mayor Mufi Hannemann spent yesterday on the phone after cutting a trip to Tokyo short, talking to legislators, business leaders and union officials about the prospects for a transit tax that the governor has vowed to veto as early as today.

"There's really nothing that I can do from a legal standpoint," said Hannemann, who got back from Japan yesterday after just a day in the country on a trip aimed at encouraging tourism for Honolulu's centennial. "Right now, it's strictly in her (the governor's) court and the Legislature's court. The city cannot be blamed if this doesn't go through at all."

The tax, which would raise funds to pay for a rail transit project, has been the subject of political wrangling since its inception. Finally, on Friday, Gov. Linda Lingle announced she would veto House Bill 1309. The declaration, through Lingle's press secretary, came just hours after Hannemann and Democratic legislative leaders indicated they had reached a compromise with the Republican governor.

"I was mystified because we just had a good meeting," Hannemann said, adding that he spoke to representatives in the Governor's Office yesterday and confirmed that her "threat to veto is real."

The bill in question authorizes counties to increase the general excise tax to fund transportation projects and says the state will collect any general excise tax beyond the state-levied 4 percent, then give a county its portion, minus a 10 percent administration fee. The Honolulu City Council has voted two of the required three times to raise the excise tax to 4.5 percent, should the Legislature pass the enabling law.

But Lingle has said she wants the counties, not the state, to be responsible for collecting the tax, and will veto the bill unless lawmakers pledge to make the changes in a special session planned for tomorrow.

Lawmakers, meanwhile, say the changes would take more than one day to make and have urged the governor to allow the bill to become law and trust legislators to make the adjustments later, as the tax change would not go into effect until 2007.

And they say the issue is further complicated because Lingle's official notice to the Legislature that she was considering vetoing the transit bill was flawed by typographical errors.

Although state Attorney General Mark Bennett said last week that the typos did not change the intent of the notice, lawmakers hold the veto notification is flawed and that the bill will automatically become law tomorrow, the governor's veto deadline.

The dispute, they add, could very well end up in the courts.

Meanwhile, those against the tax are planning to cull support from sympathetic legislators this week, and a number of pro-mass transit organizations pledge to do the same.

In a full-page ad printed in the Star-Bulletin yesterday, several proponents of rail transit urged Lingle not to veto the bill. "Traffic sucks," the ad read, "but you haven't seen anything yet."

Wes Frysztacki, vice president of the Committee for Balanced Transportation, one of the organizations that sponsored the ad, said yesterday that he was disappointed by the governor's threat to veto the bill because his group started after Lingle called for a mass transit solution to the island's traffic congestion.

"The personalities and the details need to be put aside," he said. "The problem is just too great. ... Everybody needs to rise to the question and be smart and be cooperative."

Transit proponents also warn that state and county officials must agree to a dedicated source of state funding or risk losing the chance to get the federal money needed for a major project.

But organizations against light rail are holding out hope that Lingle's veto might spell disaster for the transit tax. "We have a traffic problem; we don't have a public transportation problem," said Cliff Slater, chairman of honolulutraffic. com. "It'd be nice if the veto held up."

Until meeting with Lingle last week, Hannemann was opposed to the city setting up a new tax collection system when the state has one already in place. He had originally estimated that setting up such a system would cost $50 million, but a city spokesman later said the figure would be less.

Lingle told the Star-Bulletin on Saturday that her intent to veto the bill does not mean she is killing off mass transit funding for Oahu. "I have to veto the bill," Lingle said, because it does not require the county to collect the tax. She promised that she will support the bill if the Legislature amends it so the county collects the tax.

"I do want it to go into effect," Lingle said.

The governor's press secretary did not return a phone call for additional comment yesterday.

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