Bills proposing a tax on real estate investment trusts and establishing a statewide retirement savings program for private sector employees inspired some of the biggest spending on lobbying at the Hawaii Legislature during this year’s session.

A Civil Beat review of recently filed lobbying reports shows the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts, a trade group representing the REITS, and the AARP each spent close to $180,000 just in the session’s last two months to influence legislators. Airbnb, meanwhile, spent a total $75,598 since January to oppose the taxation and regulation of vacation rental platforms.

Despite their spending, Nareit and Airbnb failed in their attempts to halt passage of the tax bills in the Legislature. Gov. David Ige will ultimately decide whether or not the bills become law .

And lawmakers rejected the establishment of a statewide retirement savings program despite the effort by AARP.

All told, about 260 registered organizations spent more than $2.7 million to influence legislation this year.

Senate reflections Capitol building. 2 may 2017
More than 260 organizations spent a total $2.7 million in lobbying on various issues this legislative session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The REIT trade group spent $314,126 from January through April opposing a proposed 6.4% corporate tax on REITS in Hawaii that own some of the state’s most iconic properties like the Hilton Hawaiian Village and Ala Moana Center. Individual REITS, including Alexander & Baldwin, DeBartolo Development, Brookfield Properties, Park Hotels & Resorts and The Taubman Company, also spent more than $50,000 since January lobbying against the proposed tax. 

Most of the trade group’s money went to ad buys in local media costing $182,773, while the organization spent another $77,160 on distribution for lobbying materials, though the reports don’t make clear what those materials were.

The trade group also made payments of $36,738 to consultants and paid its lobbyists from SanHi Government Strategies a total of $17,452.

Senate Bill 301, which proposes the corporate revenue tax on REITS, is now among hundreds of bills awaiting the governor’s decisions.

Lawmakers estimated the corporate tax could eventually generate about $10 million per year for the state. The trade group warned that passage of the bill could amount to a net loss for the state if the REITS invest less in Hawaii on construction and job creation.

Hilton Hawaiian Village entrance. 29 july 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Some of Hawaii’s most iconic properties like the Hilton Hawaiian Village are owned by real estate investment trusts. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Supporters of the bill said it was about the REITS paying their fair share.

REITs are securities that hold real estate and distribute at least 90 percent of their taxable income to shareholders annually in dividends. Shareholders pay taxes on that income in their home state and countries, but few of them live in Hawaii and pay little in the way of corporate income taxes.

Nareit launched The REIT Way Hawaii website, which focuses on donations made by Hawaii’s REITS to affordable housing projects. Featured on the website are donations to an affordable housing project on Maui, and a $150,000 donation to Puuhonua O Waianae to build a small village.

If Ige does sign SB 301, Hawaii would become just the second state to impose such a tax.

No Retirement Savings Plan

AARP isn’t typically a top spender at the Capitol. In the first half of the session for example, it spent just $3,750 to pay its lobbyists, Craig Gima and Jessica Wooley.

Starting in March, however, AARP launched a media blitz, spending $149,307 on advertising in the last two months of the session. Payments to its in-house lobbyists were also bumped up $3,750 to $24,123, according to the organization’s expense reports.

One of the issues AARP pushed heavily for was the Hawaii Retirement Savings Program, which would have created state-administered savings plans for private sector employees.

AARP members listen to Sen. Brian Taniguchi in a committee room at the State Capitol in the final minutes of a conference committee meeting. Chad Blair/Civil Beat

Senate Bill 1374 died in the closing minutes of a conference committee meeting in late April after the chairs of the Senate Ways and Means and House Finance committees could not agree on appropriations to implement the program.

The bill passed both chambers of the Legislature unanimously earlier in the session, but amendments forced it into conference committee deliberations.

“Providing private sector employees with access to employer-sponsored retirement plans is a reliable way to promote savings needed for a secure retirement, improve economic mobility, and reduce wealth disparity,” the preamble to the bill said.

It was opposed by the American Council of Life Insurers and NAIFA Hawaii, an organization representing life insurers and financial advisers. The two organizations reported payments to lobbyists of $19,350 and $5,250 respectively.

The organizations said in written testimony that the program could have placed cost burdens on small businesses and that there are other retirement programs, like IRAs, available to private sector employees.

Vacation Rentals and Plastics

Airbnb reported spending more than $75,000 in lobbying last session. About $65,000 of that went to pay lobbyists David Louie ($43,494), Matthew Middlebrook ($7,949.98),  Bruce Coppa ($4,048.86), Blake Oshiro ($4,048.86), Ross Yamasaki ($4,048.86) and Shane Peters ($1,500).

Senate Bill 1292 became one of the session’s most controversial bills. Under the House version that was sent to the governor, the state would begin collecting transient accommodations tax and general excise taxes from short-term rentals, while hosting platforms, such as Airbnb, would act as a tax collector.

Lawmakers hope the new taxes could generate $46 million per year in additional revenues.

Opponents in the Senate worried that hiding the location of the rentals could lead to more of them. Airbnb also opposed the the measure, but for different reasons than the senators. 

North Shore Oahu homes along Beachfront airBnb.
Airbnb was one of the top spenders on lobbying at the Legislature this session. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2018

The vacation rental platform in written testimony criticized the idea that it might need to register with the state and provide identifying information about its rentals.

Some supporters of the increased regulations quickly turned against the bill in the closing days of conference committee when the House refused to negotiate with the Senate to resolve their differences over the bill.

The final vote split the Senate, which narrowly passed the bill, highlighting the House’s hardline tactic of forcing the Senate’s hand on certain measures.

The House also substantially changed a Senate bill that proposed banning single use plastics. Senate Bill 522 was watered down to just forming a working group to study the issue of plastics in the state.

The bill’s original draft was opposed by the food industry and food container manufacturers, which spent a total of $50,000 lobbying this session.

Correction: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Kona Brewing Company opposed the bill. They testified in both the Senate and House in support of the measure.

Companies like K. Yamada Distributors, the American Chemistry Council and the Hawaii Food Industry Association all testified in opposition to the proposed ban.

Several local eateries also opposed the measure in written testimony including Shiro’s Saimin Haven and Queen Street Cafe. The measure was supported, meanwhile, by environmental and conservation groups.

Opponents of the measure, especially local businesses, worried that the sudden ban would mean paying more for alternatives to the iconic plate lunch container.

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