Welcome to Capitol Watch. The Hawaii Legislature has just two weeks to go, and balancing the budget remains issue Numero Uno.

4:23 p.m. Fontaine Warns of GET Hike

Increasing the state’s general excise tax is currently off the table, but GOP Freshmen Rep. George Fontaine says the idea is not completely dead.

Fontaine says today on his blog:

Higher GE Tax – HB 793 SD1, in its earlier version, would have raised the general excise (GE) tax by one percent. In the present form, this bill suspends certain GE tax credits. Keep an eye on this one, because there could be an effort to raise the GE tax again. The GE tax is a pyramiding tax that affects everyone in our society, including the poor. An increase in the GE tax is bad for the economy because some businesses may have to lay off employees. Many businesses will also have to increase their prices to cover the increase in the tax.

3:35 p.m. Judiciary Seeking Reapportionment Chair

Applicants are being sought to chair the Hawaii Reapportionment Commission because the eight-member commission can’t agree on who should get the job.

Because the commission was unable to select a chair — as reported in Civil Beat — within 30 days of certification of its members, the Hawaii Supreme Court is required by the Hawaii Constitution to select a chair by May 1.

According to the judiciary’s press release, “The names of all applicants will be made public.”

3:02 p.m. Kanu Hawaii Roundup

Tonights edition, from 5:30 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. in the Capitol Rotunda, features Jeff Mikulina talking about on energy bills and a lovely representative from the Public Access Room talking about Conference Committees and what it means for citizens.

2:42 p.m. Pension Tax on PBS ‘Insights’

Host Dan Boylan has invited Dean Hirata, Barbara Kim Stanton, Barbara Marumoto and Eldon Wegner to talk about the proposed pension tax to Medicare reimbursements to retirement benefits for public and private workers.

A promo for the show states: “This isn’t just a topic for those in retirement; in fact, it’s baby boomers and future retirees who likely face the biggest threat to long-term financial security.”

1:46 p.m. GOP Seeks Kala for 2012 Senate

The Hawaii Republican Party doesn’t yet have a horse in the race, but the party is asking for donations in anticipation that a candidate (e.g., Linda Lingle) will emerge.

“With Senator Akaka’s retirement announcement … the Hawaii GOP is willing to fight for the open US Senate seat in 2012,” reads a post on the party’s website. “I hope you will join us by making a sustaining financial committment [sic] TODAY! Your committment [sic] today will make all the difference for the coming months.”  

Visa, MasterCard, Discover, American Express and personal check accepted.

Applications for a spell-checker may also be accepted.

1:01 p.m. Bad News: Tax Collections Down Through March

Hawaii general fund tax collections are off by 5.5 percent through the first nine months of the 2011 fiscal year, compared to the same period last year.

The Department of Taxation released preliminary numbers showing it collected $3.06 billion in taxes through March, including $356,007 in March alone. That’s down from $3.24 billion last year.

Fred Pablo, in a statement, attributed the decrease to the decision to delay tax refunds last July. He said if that were factored out, general fund collections have actually increased 0.3 percent.

GET and use tax collections, the largest category of tax revenue, are up 5.7 percent over the previous year. Hotel room taxes (the TAT) are up by 24 percent to $207.9 million through March.

—Nanea Kalani

12:24 p.m. Shield Law Headed for Final Vote

A bill extending the state’s Shield Law that protects journalists and online bloggers from having to reveal sources or notes in court, will receive final votes in the state House and Senate next week.

Yesterday, conference committee members agreed on language extended the law until June 30, 2013. The law would expire this June 30 unless lawmakers acted.

Journalists and First Amendment advocates had wanted to eliminate the sunset date entirely, but Senate Judiciary deferred to the state’s Judiciary branch, which wants to study the impact of the Shield Law and report its findings to the Legislature in the 2012 session.

9:56 a.m. Lawsuit Filed Over Mayor Wright Conditions

A group of low-income residents with disabilities filed class action lawsuits in federal and state court today against the Hawaii Public Housing Authority.

The lawsuits concern “notoriously unsafe conditions and inaccessible apartments” at the Mayor Wright Homes public housing project, according to a press release from plaintiffs’ attorneys Lawyers for Equal Justice.

The federal suit charges that conditions at Mayor Wright violate the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Rehabilitation Act and the Fair Housing Act.

The suit filed in state Circuit Court alleges that the Housing Authority has breached its obligations to residents under state warranty law.

The press release states:

The housing facilities at MWH are characterized by architectural barriers, leaking and bursting plumbing, an almost total lack of hot water, vermin infestation including rats, roaches and bedbugs, overflowing trash piles, toxic air filed with noxious particulates, inconsistent security and hazardous and inaccessible conditions.

Mayor Wright has been in recent headlines because the facility lacked hot water — a matter since addressed by lawmakers and the administration.

9:12 a.m. DHHL dedicates Kaupuni Village

The governor and LG will be on hand for the dedication by Hawaiian Home Lands for what is described as the “first net-zero energy, LEED Platinum” affordable housing subdivision in the country.

DHHL’s Kaupuni Village is in the Waianae Valley. A celebration follows at Hale Kumuwaiwai Community Resource Center.

Platinum certification is the highest rating in the U.S. Green Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design Green Building Rating System for new construction.

9:02 a.m. Where’s Neil?

In addition to the DHHL dedication noted above, here’s Neil:

• Live Aloha In Your Neighborhood Proclamation 5th Floor Executive Office, Ceremonial Room, 3 p.m. to 3:30 p.m.

• UH Travel Industry Management Gala, brief remarks, Hilton Hawaiian Village, Tapa Ballroom, 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.  

8:52 a.m. Budget Conference Nitty-Gritty

Last night’s conference committee on the state budget House Bill 200 wrapped up within an hour, with House Finance and Senate Ways and Means members making some changes to individual department budgets.

Kalbert Young was spotted in the audience along with at least a dozen other department heads and deputies.

Most of the changes involved appropriations from special funds and federal monies for such things as new hires at the Departments of Labor and Hawaiian Home Lands.

Other items were more tedious — like $750,000 for the Department of Education for lost textbooks. And taking away $211 from the Hawaii Youth Correctional Facility.

(If you’re into this kind of stuff, look here for a full list of the disagreements between the House and Senate budget drafts. And see page 180 for the $211 reference, which Marcus Oshiro chuckled at before saying, “This is how small we’re going.”)

Oshiro and David Ige agreed to give committee members Thursday night off to enjoy the Good Friday and Easter Sunday holidays.

The committee will reconvene Monday at 7 p.m. At this pace, it’s unclear how the committee will meet Oshiro’s goal of agreeing on a budget draft by Tuesday.

— Nanea Kalani

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