The House Minority Caucus released its legislative package of seven bills and three resolutions Friday, including three bills related to taxes.
“Our focus package is about reconnecting the people of Hawaii by making our government more accessible, more affordable and more accountable,” said caucus leader Rep. Andria Tupola at a press conference Friday.
House Bill 1730 would expand the state’s public records laws to clarify that “budget and budget-related documents,” including budget requests, must be made available.
The bill specifically cites the “deliberative process privilege” exemption, which is often used to deny record access. The bill was drafted in response to a Civil Beat lawsuit, Tupola said.
“We decided to pursue it because we think that it’s correct, that we should have more accountability by having that open transparency,” she said.
Civil Beat sued Honolulu in 2015 over its refusal to disclose budget request memos that Mayor Kirk Caldwell used to create his spending plan for fiscal year 2016, arguing that the Legislature in creating the public records law specifically rejected the deliberative process privilege. A Hawaii Circuit Court judge sided with the city, finding that state and local agencies should be able to exchange such ideas in private, in the interest of government efficiency.
The state Supreme Court agreed to take the case after Civil Beat challenged that ruling. The high court has not yet issued an opinion.
“Unfortunately, some officials have twisted this exemption and the related ‘deliberative process privilege’ into an excuse to withhold vast numbers of documents from disclosure,” the bill states. “This goes against the original intent of the Uniform Information Practices Act, and must end.”
The only exception, if the bill is approved, would be for documents related to undercover law enforcement operations.
Neighbor island residents hoping to submit oral testimony at legislative hearings would get their shot if HB 1734, calling for a year-long video-conferencing program, is passed.
Currently, residents who don’t live on islands other than Oahu are forced to take time off from work and spend hundreds of dollars to fly to Honolulu to testify in person.
The Senate has a seldom-used video-conferencing pilot program for neighbor island residents, but it’s only available for certain hearings held in a single room at the Capitol.
Rep. Lauren Matsumoto said she’s seen hearings that have used that pilot program. Usually, the video-conference testifiers were rallied by their local representative.
“What I think needs to happen is being able to testify on every single bill that goes through a committee, not just once in awhile,” said Matsumoto.
The bill calls Capitol hearings “an unreasonable and undemocratic barrier” for 400,000 neighbor island residents. A two-way, interactive system is needed, Tupola said.
“This is not rocket science. We should’ve done this years and years and years ago,” said Rep. Gene Ward.
Alaska, Nevada, Nebraska and Washington already have remote testifying programs, according to the bill.
A legislative analyst would be required to track the financial impacts of new bills under HB 1729. Another bill, HB 1735, would allow employers to give preference in hiring to honorably discharged veterans.
“We feel that those who have sacrificed for their families, put it all on the line for us, that there’s some way we can encourage the private sector (to hire veterans),” said Rep. Bob McDermott, a veteran who served in the first Gulf War.
House Resolution 4 urges Honolulu to accelerate its process to grant necessary permits to build housing, while HR 5 asks the state auditor to review public charter schools and find ways to provide them with equal per-pupil funding compared to public schools.
Hawaii public schools saw a 1 percent decrease in enrollment last year, Tupola said, and charter school enrollment saw a 5 percent increase.
“If you’ve ever been to some of the charter schools in our state, they have very unique, creative, out-of-the-box, different ideas and school choice has been a trend that our state is moving toward,” Tupola said.
A third resolution, HR 6, was signed Friday. In it, House Republicans called upon the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency to review its own procedures and conduct public information campaigns in conjunction with community groups.
Under HB 1732, food and medical services would be exempted from the general excise tax. Soft drinks, tobacco and bakery items would still be taxable. Most states with sales taxes exempt or reduce taxes on food.
The GET is passed to consumers on nearly all goods and services, in lieu of a sales tax.
Tax experts agree that the GET is regressive, hitting low- and middle-income people the hardest. Needier people spend all or most of what they earn on necessities. They spend a higher percentage of their pay on taxes compared to high-income earners.
Hawaii ranks second in the nation for disproportionately taxing the poor, according to a nonpartisan study.
At Friday’s press conference, Rep. Cynthia Thielen carried a bag of groceries. The average four-person family in Hawaii loses $650 per year on food taxes, she said.
Citing Hawaii’s cost of living, HB 1731 proposes a constitutional amendment to require a two-thirds majority in the Legislature to raise taxes.
“The more the state takes in taxes, the less local families have to spend on their own priorities,” the bill states.
The five-person caucus constitutes the only Republicans in the 51-person House, and in fact in the entire Legislature. All 25 state senators are Democrats.
Citing the contentious rail debate in which lawmakers on both sides of the aisle protested raising taxes to bail out the troubled project, McDermott said the bill could have a big impact.
Estate taxes would be repealed under HB 1733. These taxes are levied after a person dies and their property is transferred to others.
The caucus deemed the taxes “an insult to the dignity of life and the right to private property.”
In fiscal year 2016, estate taxes accounted for $50 million in state revenue.
Hawaii is one of 12 states, plus Washington, D.C., with estate taxes, according to the bill. In 2010, the Hawaii Legislature overrode Republican Gov. Linda Lingle’s veto of a state estate tax bill.
View an information packet on the GOP legislative package below: