Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell can finally relax, now that the Legislature has passed another multi-billion-dollar bailout for the Honolulu rail project.

Over a decade ago, the rail was introduced as a solution to our traffic problems. Now it’s 2017 and all we have are missed deadlines, a budget that has nearly doubled to $10 billion and broken promises … not to mention the towering concrete pillars now ruining some of Oahu’s best views.

The Democratic Majority fast-tracked a statewide tax increase to rescue the rail project over only five days. This controversial $2.4 billion tax bill ultimately passed the House by only 16 votes — a slim margin in a body with a 46-member Democratic supermajority.

Rep Gene Ward has words with Vice Speaker Mizuno Rep Evans. 4 may 2017
Republicans say they provided an invaluable voice of dissent during the recent special session. Here, Rep. Gene Ward, left, and then Vice Speaker John Mizuno try to work out their differences regarding the vote for a new speaker in May. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The House Minority Caucus has only five members and played a valuable role this special session by providing a voice for dissent.

Our caucus introduced four floor amendments that aimed to bring real accountability to the rail project, enforce a strict budget limit, implement public-private partnerships to save time and taxpayer money, and eliminate the geographic injustice of taxing neighbor island businesses to pay for Honolulu’s budget-busting rail.

Fraud, Waste, Abuse

First, we wanted to help restore public confidence in the rail project by ensuring that the audit would specifically seek out fraud, waste and abuse.

Although the existing bill asks the auditor to examine the rail project’s records, our floor amendment called for a “forensic” audit that explicitly directs the auditor to look for evidence of criminal activity. Without the word “forensic,” there’s fat chance fraud will be uncovered.

Our second floor amendment addressed the project’s soaring costs and likely future visits from the mayor requesting even more tax dollars. He still insists that the project is $600 million to $900 million short, and has admitted he doesn’t know where rail operational and maintenance funds will come from.

Some analysts predict the final cost might be as much as $10 billion to 15 billion. At this rate, who knows how high it could go! That’s why our second floor amendment would have imposed a “rail cap” and put a stop to blind funding of rail.

We wanted to help restore public confidence in the rail project by ensuring that the audit would specifically seek out fraud, waste and abuse.

Other states and countries have insisted that the private sector have some “skin in the game” and have tapped into private investment or public-private partnerships (“P3”) as a tool to build public infrastructure faster and with less burden on taxpayers.

Our third amendment would have stopped the flow of state funds for the rail project unless the city could come up with at least 10 percent of the project costs from private investment. It’s simply unfair that public officials have ignored P3 opportunities in favor of repeatedly raising your taxes.

Refusing To Be Silent

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, our last floor amendment would have exempted neighbor islands from the transient accommodations tax increase. Majority leadership negotiated this hasty rail deal without real input or testimony from the neighbor islands, whose residents were blindsided to learn that their local economies would now be held hostage by Honolulu’s rail boondoggle.

Four neighbor-island Democratic Representatives joined us in voting to keep the burden for Honolulu’s rail bailout off the neighbor islands and showed that their dedication to their constituents exceeded that to their leadership.

Although the House Minority Caucus remains small, we refuse to be silent. If the majority was listening to the people of Hawaii, we would not have introduced these common sense amendments because the super-majority would have had the backs of the people of Hawaii.

We will keep pushing for better solutions and continue to fight for greater transparency and accountability in the legislative process, especially to the rail project — the last of which we have not yet heard.

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