The Hawaii Legislature has been excoriated in some corners for the way it conducted its five-day special session to fund the Honolulu rail project.

Among the chastisements are that Senate Bill 4, signed into law last week, burned the visitor industry and neighbor islanders by increasing the hotel tax in all counties, ignored public testimony by not amending the legislation and was even disrespectful to some testifiers.

Some critics complained that the rail financing bill was a done deal cobbled together in secret, and that its passage will primarily benefit developers, laborers and the groups that lobby for them.

They harp that the estimated $10 billion rail enterprise is little more than a growing money pit that will ultimately fail to alleviate traffic woes, as is the intent.

But these arguments ignore a fundamental point: The Legislature was asked by the city and the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation to continue funding rail beyond the general excise tax surcharge that sunsets in 2027.

Representatives at 130pm listening to colleagues on the last day of special session.
House floor deliberations on the last day of the special session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

After failing spectacularly to do just that during its regular 2017 session, it delivered a detailed piece of compromise legislation that effectively implements state control of a county project that has gone — well, off the tracks.

For that, our lawmakers deserve credit and thanks for coming up with a solution (at least for now) on one of the most vexing challenges facing residents. And they did it before a federal deadline this week regarding rail financing.

It almost didn’t happen.

Had Joe Souki remained House speaker and Jill Tokuda stayed on as Senate Ways and Means chairwoman, a special session might not have happened. New leadership and committee assignments helped free up a legislative logjam, and Souki and Tokuda ended up supporting SB 4.

As reported in a Civil Beat story last week, five leaders — Senate President Ron Kouchi, House Speaker Scott Saiki, Luke, Senate Ways and Means Committee chair Donovan Dela Cruz and House Transportation Committee chair Henry Aquino  led the effort to salvage a rail deal.

The process allowed for a lot of public testimony and gave legislators the chance to kill the bill — something that nearly happened in the WAM hearing on SB 4.

Each tesifier was given 2 minutes to testify during WAM committee hearing meeting on rail at the Capitol auditorium. Once the two minutes were up, an alarm sounded with a person holding a sign for 'stop'. Over 60-people testified followed by questions.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee held its hearing on the rail-funding bill in the Capitol Auditorium. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

And, whether open government advocates (including Civil Beat) like it our not, the Legislature is exempt from the state Sunshine Law that requires state and county boards to conduct their business as openly as possible. But let’s be real: negotiating a package to present at the special session was always going to require some backroom dealing. 

It was clear from the end of the regular session in early May that the transient accommodations tax was in play to help pay for rail. Lobbyists and the public had several months to weigh in before the Legislature came back into session Aug. 28.

Other leaders were involved. Two former state legislators, U.S. Sen. Brian Schatz and U.S. Rep. Colleen Hanabusa, spoke publicly in favor of SB 4. Gov. David Ige’s budget and finance director, Wes Machida, also played an important role.

In the end, a respectable majority of members voted in favor of the rail bailout. The vote was 16-9 in the Senate, 31-14 in the House.

The work of the Legislature is not done, however.

It must make certain that audits, reports and analysis called for in SB 4 are completed correctly and on time. And if more problems with rail are uncovered — given the history, it seems certain — the Legislature must hold the proper authorities accountable.

There are 10 billion reasons why.

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