In August 2017, the Hawaii Legislature convened for a five-day special session to pass Senate Bill 4 – a bill to extend Hawaii’s General Excise Tax surcharge through 2030 and raise the Transient Accommodation Tax in the state to pay for rail. This special session, coming off the heels of a regular session that saw Senate Ways and Means Chair Jill Tokuda and House Speaker Joe Souki – two of the most powerful politicians in the state – removed from their positions due to a failure of competing rail funding bills, was led by what Civil Beat called “The Legislature’s Big Five”. According to Civil Beat writers Stewart Yerton and Courtney Teague, the legislature only required a five-day special session because most of the work was done behind closed doors by the so-called “Big Five”. While it makes sense that a session should only last as long as it must, the Hawaii State Constitution complicated things. The Constitution sets very specific timelines of how introductions of and votes on bills must take place in both houses and the short length of the special session gave no room for the introduction of amendments or even discussion. This reality has led many to believe, including former State Senator for Kauai Gary Hooser, that the public discussion was nothing more than a sham.
Via Civil Beat:
It is surrealistic, a bizarre theater of the absurd where everyone knows the deal has already been cut and nothing will change regardless what the public says at the microphone. The legislators know this, the public knows this, and even the media understands and reports that the deal has been made way before the hearing has even been called or the formal vote taken. Yet, everyone still plays their defined role, acting as if the democratic process is truly at work and justice is being served. All in pursuit of building a train.
By the end of the fifth day, the legislature had allocated $2.4 billion dollars for a rail project that Hooser, a staunch progressive, describes as “poorly conceived and ill managed”. Hooser, of course, isn’t alone in this opinion. The City and County of Honolulu’s own auditor in April 2016 published a damning audit of the rail which outlined how the Honolulu Authority on Rail Transit (HART) had among other things not documented exactly why costs had gone up, underreported budget shortfalls, and in one instance failed to justify $450 million in cost increases. HART’s failures didn’t stop at cost overruns. The City Auditor also found that HART did not have adequate plans for funding the operation and maintenance of rail once it was completed, that the system would never pay for itself and would need constant subsidies to keep it running, and had more than likely overestimated ridership estimates.
The most egregious episode of this depressing show, however, would have to be the defense of the project and the way it’s funded. During the session, Representative Dee Morikawa of Kauai unwittingly made a particularly apt comparison between rail and the worst natural disaster in our state’s history.
Via The Garden Island:
When Hurricane Iniki struck Kauai, a disproportionate amount of state resources were funneled to our island to deal with the disaster and recovery.
While it wasn’t Representative Morikawa’s intention to compare rail to Hurricane Iniki – a category 4 hurricane that struck the island of Kauai in 1992 causing $1.8 billion worth of damage – the comparison served to illustrate the immense drain the rail project has on the entire state’s resources. The difference, of course, is that Hurricane Iniki was an act of nature that was about five times cheaper than the rail.
Another common defense of rail funding involves the use of the state’s General Excise Tax – a tax labeled a regressive tax by experts. The Hawaii Tax Foundation’s late Lowell Kalapa compares the state’s GET with sales taxes in other states in that it taxes a larger portion of income from poor people as wealthier people.
The semi-prominent progressive group Young Progressives Demanding Action – the successor organization of Students for Bernie at the University of Hawaii at Manoa – testified in full support of the special session funding bill. Our legislature has fostered such a strong pattern of failure on this issue that even such staunch supporters of rail as YPDA are left supporting legislation on the basis that it is the best “thus far”. The group’s testimony is full of qualifiers for their support of GET funding even going so far as to allude to the notion that the groups who pay the most will benefit the most – right before admitting it will actually hurt them:
This current proposal is the best compromise that we have seen the legislature seriously consider thus far in regards to how to fund this project and give relief to our most vulnerable citizens…As we all have heard time and time again, and make no mistake we are in agreement, that the General Excise Tax is a regressive tax that hurts the citizens of our state that have the hardest time making ends meet and caring for their families. YPDA takes a very critical eye and approach when any proposal considers increasing the GET in our already regressive tax structure.
In other words, regressive funding for rail is justified because it benefits poor people the most. This makes about as much logical sense as taxing the poor more to pay for food stamps. While in full recognition of the regressive nature of the General Excise Tax and the lack of adequate solutions for limiting its burden by the legislature, the group strongly supported the special session funding legislation on the basis that it was “the best…thus far”. But this is how far support for rail has fallen even among its most loyal supporters – excuses, qualifiers, and logical leaps are now required to justify “full support”.
In Gary Hooser’s piece, Rail, Faux Democracy And Real Leadership, in which he blasts Hawaii’s legislature for the great lengths they took to stifle democratic processes to fund Honolulu’s rail, the former State Senate Majority Leader – a strong progressive himself – finds the mismanagement of rail irreconcilable to the broader needs of the state. He argues that the money could’ve been better served towards solutions to our homeless problem and the special session could have been used to tackle some of these issues. I am fully in agreement. Spending even more billions on bricks and mortar in support of a train,” he writes, “While families across Hawaii live in poverty alongside busy roadways, with only blue tarps and wooden pallets for shelter is a travesty.”