It only lasted five days, yet Hawaii lobbyists managed to spend about $200,000 during the special session held to fund the Honolulu rail project, according to recent filings with the Hawaii State Ethics Commission.

That works out to about $40,000 a day.

Most of the lobbyists supported the rail’s completion, which was in jeopardy if the Hawaii Legislature failed to pass a rescue plan for the over-budget project. 

The largest chunk of money by far came from the Committee for Balanced Transportation, which does business as Friends of Rail, also known as Finish Rail Now.

It dropped almost $146,000 during the special session, with nearly all of it going to Anthology Marketing Group, the Honolulu company that specializes in advertising, public relations and research.

Friends of Rail also paid $785 for bentos, although it does not indicate who ate them.

A screen shot of the Friends of Rail website, Oct. 16.

Who are Friends of Rail? That depends on whom you ask.

The Friends bill themselves as a nonprofit grassroots organization “formed to support the completion” of Honolulu’s 20-mile, 21-station rail transit project.

Supporters include the Laborers International Union of North America Local 368, the Operative Plasterers & Cement Masons Local 630, the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce, Faith Action for Community Equity, West Oahu Economic Development Association and the Hawaii Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust.

But Civil Beat columnist Ian Lind calls Friends of Rail an “astroturf” group, “one which makes phony claims about a grassroots base to cover its control by special interests, including well-funded corporations and unions, along with their public relations firms and varied consultants.”

Lind wrote about the Friends not long before the special session that convened the last week of August and into September.

“Another nebulous group has surfaced with a public relations blitz aimed at pushing lawmakers to dig deeper into the public’s pocket to keep the rail on track and fully funded in its original form,” he wrote.

Contributions to Friends of Rail during the special session came from more than a dozen groups.

Those include the Hawaii Laborers-Employers Cooperation and Education Trust mentioned above ($20,000), The MacNaughton Group ($12,500), Stanford Carr Development ($10,000), Hawaiian Dredging Construction ($10,000), Hawaii Construction Alliance $10,000), Hunt Development Group ($10,000), Castle and Cooke Hawaii ($5,000), Second City Property Management ($25,000), Royal Contracting ($20,000), Kobayashi Group $12,500) and the General Contractors Association of Hawaii ($25,000).

Left, City Council Chair Ron menor sits thru the Legislature extended session seated with Mayor Kirk Caldwell on the last day of the extended session. Capitol.
Honolulu City Council Chair Ron Menor, left, sits through the last day of the House special session on funding rail with Mayor Kirk Caldwell. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Did Friends of Rail get its money’s worth? Arguably yes.

While the votes on Senate Bill 4 were not close in the full House and Senate, the Senate Ways and Means committee narrowly approved the bill with a 6-to-5 vote.

And while some rail supporters, such as Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, wanted more money from the Legislature and opposed increasing the hotel tax, $2.4 billion is a lot of dough.

The legislation, which was never amended, is expected to raise about $1.3 billion from Hawaii hotel guests by increasing the statewide hotel room tax to 10.25 percent from 9.25 percent for 13 years.

It’s also projected to raise $1.046 billion from Oahu taxpayers by extending 0.5 percent general excise tax surcharge for three years, from 2027 to 2030.

Other big spenders in the pro-rail camp included Move Oahu Forward, which spent $45,029 during the special session. Almost half went to lobbyist Jennifer Sabas while the remainder was divided between consultant fees and media advertising.

Other spending during the special session came from groups that had interests of their own at stake. Max Sword, the lobbyist for Outrigger Hotels and Resorts, spent $5,000 on media advertising (it went to Friends of Rail) while the Maui Hotel and Lodging Association paid $2,192 to a lobbyist.

The visitor industry generally opposed using the hotel tax to help pay for rail, especially on the neighbor islands. But the 1 percentage point hike is not permanent and is less than the 3 percentage points increase that was proposed in the closing days of the 2017 legislative session.

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