Friday, January 23, 2009

Senate President Hanabusa’s ‘Tax Grab’ Sparks Swift Reaction for Potential to Endanger Funds

Senate President Colleen Hanabusa was on the Honolulu Advertiser’s Hot Seat yesterday, and the Honolulu rail system attracted more attention than any other issue. Most readers who wrote on that topic seemed critical of the Senator’s comments at the opening of the State Legislature suggesting that some of the so-called transit tax (the .005% increase in the general excise tax that went into effect two years ago) might be used to offset the State’s anticipated budget shortfall.

What individual voters think won’t matter as much as how federal transit officials may react to yet another potential impediment to Honolulu’s elevated guideway plans. U.S. Senator Daniel K. Inouye and Rep. Neil Abercrombie must be wondering how many times they’ll have to beat back initiatives, well-intended or otherwise, that may impede the rail system.

Grabbing for Taxes?

The concern about what some are calling a “grab” for the transit tax is that it may convince federal officials Honolulu will never get its act together on fixed guideway transit. City Managing Director Kirk Caldwell provided a swift rebuke to Hanabusa’s suggestion, calling it a “terrible” and “ill-conceived, ill-timed” idea. City Council Vice Chair Nestor Garcia said, “I think it would send the wrong message to the federal government and, given our history, could cause the (Federal Transit Administration) to doubt our commitment to the project.”

Members of the Legislature who represent residents plagued by the twice-a-day H-1 gridlock also had a dim view of the proposal. Said Sen. Will Espero, who represents Ewa, Honouliuli and Ewa Beach:

“We're looking at projects that can benefit from the federal economic stimulus project. This is one that has the potential of bringing in $1 billion. Why would we want to delay that process that would have enormous economic benefit to the state?"

The View from Washington

Senator Inouye reaffirmed his support for Honolulu rail in November just before Oahu voters voted in favor of rail transit, and he warned against any further delay in moving the project forward:

“In 1992, when the Congress authorized $618 million for a Honolulu transit project, the total cost was $1.7 billion. Back then, we would have paid 33 percent of the total, but it was rejected. Just think, how far this transit system would have been today, had we simply stayed the course. Your Delegation is prepared to once again deliver the federal dollars required. Of course, there is risk, but there is much greater potential for loss should we fail to act once again. Let us be hopeful and positive about our future.”

Congressman Abercrombie gave a characteristically energetic self-described “sermon” months ago on the importance the rail system. The video of his speech is still worth a look, especially if you haven’t had your daily allotment of caffeine. Here’s just a snippet of his speech about the importance of capturing up to a billion dollars in federal support for the project:

“Rail transit (funding) is something that other people are looking for all across the country, and they’re gonna get it. We’re in line at the top right now. We fall off this line, let me tell you, we’re finished! I’m done. I tell you that right now. I don’t lack for things to do. I am not gonna go chase that will-o-the-wisp a third time…. But this is it. We lose this one, we’re finished. We’re done for."

It’s only been two days since Hanabusa and others floated their ideas about the transit tax, and the daily newspapers have yet to weigh in on the issue. Here’s betting we won't have to wait long for their negative response.

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