State Sen. Jill Tokuda is being forced out of her position as head of the powerful money committee in the midst of 11th-hour debate over funding for the Honolulu rail project.

Tokuda told Civil Beat on Wednesday evening a resolution would be introduced on the Senate floor to remove her from from her position as chairwoman of the Ways and Means Committee.

When asked why she is being removed, Tokuda said, “I took a really hardline stance in terms of not wanting to extend the general excise tax for any long period of time,” for the rail project. “When the bill came out of my committee, it required only the skim being returned to the city.”

WAM Chair Senator Jill Tokuda speaks to Chair Gil Agaran in joint conference meeting thursday. 27 april 2017
Ways and Means Chairwoman Jill Tokuda is expected to be ousted as soon as Thursday. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

She was referring to the 10 percent administrative fee taken from Oahu’s general excise tax surcharge.

“I have always felt that we have to act fiscally responsibly,” said Tokuda.

The House wants to use the hotel tax to help pay for rail while the Senate wants to extend the GET. Gov. David Ige said Wednesday that he does not want to extend the current legislative session, which ends Thursday, or call lawmakers into special session unless they reach agreement on a deal.

Tokuda opposes the Senate’s preferred means of raising more money for rail.

It’s unclear how Tokuda’s ouster would affect the House and Senate’s ability to compromise, but two senators said it could actually make it more difficult to cut a deal.

Donovan Dela Cruz, the Ways and Means vice chairman, will likely be named acting WAM chair.

Senate President Ron Kouchi did not respond to a request for comment about Tokuda’s ouster.

Rail As Tipping Point

Dissatisfaction about Tokuda’s lack of collaboration with her colleagues has been growing for months, but the rail bill may have been the tipping point.

During negotiations Friday, Tokuda agreed with the House to approve an increase in the hotel tax bill. But the idea hadn’t been the subject of a public hearing and alarmed the hotel industry, which spent the weekend lobbying senators to reject it.

On Tuesday, the Senate voted 16-9 to revert the rail funding bill back to the general excise tax version, which is backed by Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell.

Tokuda was on the losing side, along with Kouchi.

The vote was the first public indication of Tokuda’s diminishing influence. The rail funding bill could die this week because the House and Senate still haven’t reached an agreement — even as all of Hawaii’s mayors have urged the governor to extend the session.

Tokuda said she was unsure whether her ouster would lead to a re-organization of Senate leadership. She said her removal as WAM chairwoman, however, could be seen as the opening of doors to new possibilities.

“I am just grateful to have had the opportunity to serve in this capacity, and I really look forward to future opportunities,” she said. “Being WAM chair takes up a lot of time.”

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