Lawmakers fear revenue slump


POSTED: Wednesday, March 11, 2009

As the Legislature braces for a series of state revenue drops, lawmakers yesterday started readying a series of tax increases to balance the budget.





        A look at some of the top issues before lawmakers as they reach a key deadline in the 2009 session:

» Budget: Lawmakers are looking for money to balance the budget in the face of declining revenues.


» Taxes: Leaders say tax hikes might be needed if revenues decline further.


» Tax credits: Lawmakers are looking to tighten the high-tech tax credits known as Act 221.


» Campaign finance: Two measures aim to address the issue of money in political campaigns.


» Infrastructure: Proposals advancing aim to improve highways, airports and harbors.




Yesterday was an internal deadline for lawmakers to pass proposals from one chamber to another and it served as a first glimpse at what new proposals are under serious consideration.

For instance, Sen. Donna Mercado Kim, chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee, yanked a bill that would have raided the city's $150 million transit tax fund to help balance the state budget. Kim said she received a letter from U.S. Sen. Dan Inouye warning that taking the money would jeopardize the city's proposed $4 billion rail project.

But she said she supports deficit-fighting measures in general.

“;We want to make sure we have as many vehicles available (as possible),”; said Kim (D, Halawa-Kalihi Valley). “;I'm hoping we won't need them, because I am not for raising taxes.”;

Looming over the Legislature's deliberations is the Council on Revenues' action tomorrow. It is expected to lower the projected tax collection estimates, which will cause the state budget deficit, now pegged at $650 million, to increase.

House Speaker Calvin Say thinks the next move is actually up to Gov. Linda Lingle, who must deal with shortfalls in both this year and the next biennium.

“;I'm awaiting the governor's negotiations with our public employee unions,”; said Say (St. Louis Heights-Palolo Valley-Wilhelmina Rise). “;If furloughs are not part of the package, or layoffs, she has to really tell us where things are at because as of last week, we have a balanced budget as far as the House of Representatives (is concerned).”;

Next to taxes, the other major issue this year has been a bill that would allow couples of the same gender to have all the rights of a married couple through a civil union.

The bill passed the House, but has been stalled in the Senate. Yesterday was the first day that senators could force the bill to the floor for a vote.

Sen. Gary Hooser, a strong supporter, reports the bill is still stuck in committee.

House Majority Leader Blake Oshiro, who supports the bill, urged the Senate to put the civil unions bill to a floor vote.

“;It is appropriate for the body to take up the measure and determine if they have the majority of votes or not,”; said Oshiro (D, Aiea-Halawa).

Not all the issues involved money. For instance, for the third year the Legislature is readying a bill (S.B. 604) to require all hospitals to offer emergency contraceptives to rape victims. The bill had stalled in the past because of objections by St. Francis Medical Center, which was operated by the Catholic Church. Supporters of the bill said the church has divested its ownership of the hospital, now called Hawaii Medical Center.

Another divisive bill (S.B. 1621) has been the state version of the federal “;card check”; bill that would allow labor unions to more easily organize a workplace. Opponents such as Sen. Sam Slom (R, Hawaii Kai-Diamond Head) have said it would prohibit secret union elections.

The Senate Labor Committee chairman, Sen. Dwight Takamine, argued that the bill would affect only about 5 percent of state workers and would allow workers to gain benefits by joining a union.

In the House, lawmakers approved one proposal on campaign finance reform while tabling another.

Citing technical flaws and other concerns, leaders shelved H.B. 215, which critics said would allow corporations to donate up to $50,000 to politicians each election cycle.

The House advanced a proposal to delay by four years the launch of a Big Island pilot program to test a comprehensive publicly funded campaign contribution system.

Oshiro, the House majority leader, said a recent court case in Arizona is likely to be appealed in the coming years and could call into question the constitutionality of such funding systems around 2010, when the pilot program originally was set to begin.



A look at some of the measures advancing in the state Legislature at the first key deadline of the 2009 session:

» Senate Bill 243: Requires “;big box”; retailers to operate beverage container recycling redemption centers.

» S.B. 604: Requires hospitals to provide information about emergency contraception to women who are sexually assaulted and to provide emergency contraception when requested.

» S.B. 619: Allows inmates, including felons, who were Hawaii residents at the time of their arrest and who have no more than two years left before release from imprisonment, to vote by absentee ballot in Hawaii's elections.

» S.B. 638: Establishes a two-year moratorium on evictions of residents from Kahana Valley State Park; establishes the Planning Council to create and implement a living park master plan.

» S.B. 701: Places a moratorium on any new solid-waste landfills and the expansion of any existing private solid-waste landfills on the Leeward coast from Kaena Point to Waimanalo Gulch on or after Aug. 1.

» S.B. 881: Requires a voluntary employees' beneficiary association, or VEBA, trust and the employee organization that established it, upon the insolvency of the trust, to assume all liabilities and indemnify the state.

» S.B. 1060: Increases the permit fees associated with using and importing fireworks.

» S.B. 1111: Increases the rate of the transient accommodations tax beginning July 1, and requires the additional revenues collected from the increase to be deposited into the general fund.

» S.B. 1621: Known as the union “;card check”; bill, allows certification of union representatives through a card-check authorization; requires collective bargaining to begin upon union certification. Sets deadlines and other procedures.

» S.B. 1624: Proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature to either fund the constitutionally mandated tax credit or deposit the same amount into the Emergency and Budget Reserve “;Rainy Day”; Fund.

» House Bill 29: Prohibits the commercial display of dead human bodies without a permit from the Department of Health.

» H.B. 345: Amends the pilot project for comprehensive public funding of Hawaii County council elections by commencing the project in the general election year 2014.

» H.B. 984: Implements key recommendations of the Hawaii Broadband Task Force by establishing the Hawaii Communications Commission and the Hawaii Communications Commissioner in the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs.

» H.B. 1451: Extends the availability of the Act 221 high-technology business investment, research activities and technology infrastructure renovation tax credits. Sets caps on the amount of credits that can be claimed.

» H.B. 1663: Prohibits the development, testing, propagation, release, importation, planting or growing of genetically modified Hawaiian taro in the state. Prohibits certain activities related to genetically modified non-Hawaiian taro.

» H.B. 1666: Requires that all state and county letterheads, emblems and symbols, when newly created, replaced, reprinted or otherwise revised, contain the accurate, appropriate and authentic Hawaiian names and language.

» H.B. 1763: Repeals the Hawaii Tourism Authority. Establishes the Department of Tourism. Transfers the Convention Center Enterprise Special Fund, Tourism Special Fund and Tourism Emergency Trust Fund to the Department of Tourism.

» H.B. 1784: Amends the medical tort law by, among other things, setting a maximum award limit for noneconomic damages in medical tort cases against physician specialists. Requires all insurers providing professional liability insurance for health-care providers to implement a premium rate established by the State Insurance Commissioner. Establishes the Medical Malpractice Rate Commission. Establishes the Medical Malpractice Task Force.