Hawaii’s four county mayors pitched their priorities to the Legislature on Friday, asking for help funding affordable housing projects, homelessness programs, food sustainability and infrastructure improvements.

The two-hour briefing before the House and Senate money committees, chaired by Rep. Sylvia Luke and Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz, was a far lighter affair than the past few years that were dominated by debate over funding of Honolulu’s over-budget rail project.

With that issue mostly settled in a special session last summer, the mayors took turns sharing fairly similar priorities and fielding questions from legislators about vacation rentals, taxing authority and the high cost of living in the islands.

Mayor Kirk Caldwell in Ways and Means committee meeting.
Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell joined the other county mayors in asking for a “fair share” of the state hotel tax revenues. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell, Hawaii Island Mayor Harry Kim, Maui Mayor Alan Arakawa and Kauai Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr. jointly agreed on three issues to ask the Legislature to support this session, which opened Wednesday and wraps up in May.

They want a bigger chunk of the hotel tax that the state collects, legal immunity for county lifeguards at state beaches and broader taxing powers for the counties.

The mayors asked the Legislature to pass House Bill 1665, which would provide a 55-45 percent split between the state and counties instead of the Legislature’s cap of $103 million for all four counties to share. That would let the counties reap more tax revenue as the tourism industry grows and use that money for county services, such as roads, beaches, emergency responders and parks.

Last year, the Legislature ended the civil liability protection for county lifeguards at state beaches; there is one state beach in each county. House Bill 1662 would restore that immunity.

The mayors also asked lawmakers to back House Bill 1664, which would give the counties alternative methods of generating tax revenue, including discretion to use a half-percent surcharge on the state general excise tax however they see fit instead of being limited to transportation-related projects.

Big Island Mayor Harry Kim ways means meeting in room 325 Capitol.
Hawaii Island Mayor Harry Kim said his top priority is improving the lives of the poorest residents of the county. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Caldwell took advantage of the briefing to highlight the investment his administration has made in infrastructure projects ranging from sewer systems and public transit to parks and roads.

Entering his sixth year as mayor, he said it’s been all about “keeping the city more city and the country more country.”

For Kim, the biggest social problem is homelessness and helping those residents who are on the brink of living on the streets. He painted a picture of Puna, the fastest growing region, as poverty stricken.

“I can live with not too good roads. I can live with not too good parks,” he said. “But it is sure as hell hard to live in a community that is laden with poor people having a very, very difficult time. So please understand that priority is No. 1.”

Carvalho, making his 10th appearance before lawmakers as mayor of Kauai, thanked the Legislature for the financial support that helped make it possible for the county to at last break ground on an adolescent drug treatment and healing center as well as 100 percent affordable housing projects.

Read the mayors’ testimony to lawmakers here.

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