Hawaii legislature opens with plans to tackle rail, homelessness

Hawaii Legislature begins with vows to tackle housing, rail

HONOLULU (HawaiiNewsNow) - On the opening day of the 2017 legislative session, getting out of gridlock emerged as a key issue.

House Speaker Joe Souki told the crowd that he wants to permanently extend Oahu's general excise tax surcharge to help pay for the growing price tag for rail.

"It does come with a high cost, but make no mistake, rail is the key to the future of Oahu," said Souki. "We need to remove the sunset date on the original financial bill, but only if we reduce the tax rate with the city making up the difference."

Instead of the current half-percent surcharge, Souki's lower rail tax proposal would reduce revenue by about 25-percent, but he would also decrease the state's administrative fee from 10 to 5 percent.

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell is pushing to extend the surcharge past 2027, but he is concerned about the lower revenue under Souki's plan.

"I was troubled by his comments about reducing it by a quarter percent. That makes it really hard on the taxpayers of this island. As you know, the GET is paid one-third by visitors," Caldwell said. "If they don't continue to pay it, that burden gets shifted to you and me, to the taxpayers of this island."

Senate leaders said they need more specific numbers before approving an extension.

"What we need are solid answers that we can hang our hat on. This is taxpayer money we're talking about," said Sen. Jill Tokuda, chair of the Ways and Means Committee.

Souki also wants to study the feasibility of double-decking parts of the freeway with privately-owned elevated toll roads.

"I am open to having the conversation about toll roads and other mechanisms that allow us to get the revenue we need to make traffic improvements," said Gov. David Ige.

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