Hawaii tax collections are expected to top $8 billion for the first time ever this fiscal year, taking state finances from a dire, doom-and-gloom scenario just a year ago to a huge surplus.

The state Council on Revenues, a panel of economists tasked with projecting tax collections each year, expects state tax revenue to soar by 15% this year, which would take total collections from about $7.25 billion in the fiscal year that ended on June 30 to more than $8.3 billion this fiscal year.

The council on Thursday also increased its projection for growth in tax collections from 4% to 6.9% for the following fiscal year that begins July 1. If that proves to be correct, total tax collections for next year will surge to about $8.6 billion.

House Finance Committee staff calculated that those changes mean lawmakers will have about $890 million more to work with than Gov. David Ige had anticipated when he drafted his proposed budget for next year. The new legislative session begins on Jan. 19.

Tourists arrive at Lihue Airport. Visitors have surged into Hawaii despite the threat of Covid-19, and that influx is helping to boost state tax collections to historic levels. Allan Parachini/Civil Beat/2020

Ige last month described the abrupt rebound in tax collections as “astounding,” and said he will introduce a bill that would bank $1 billion in excess cash in the state’s “rainy day” budget reserve fund to prepare for the next economic downturn.

But House Speaker Scott Saiki and Senate President Ron Kouchi said this week they don’t expect lawmakers to go along with that idea. Instead, they suggested at least some of that money should be used to help homeless people, provide affordable housing or support other unmet social needs.

Senate Ways and Means Committee Chairman Donovan Dela Cruz said this might also be the time “where hopefully we can start talking about diversifying our economy. So, what investments do we make to diversify the economy so we’re not in the same mess the next time this happens?”

Dela Cruz also acknowledged the extra money may be a factor in negotiations this year with the state’s public worker unions, which already are in arbitration proceedings or bargaining for raises.

In the House, Finance Committee Chairwoman Sylvia Luke said her top priorities are providing tax relief to Hawaii’s working families and making payments to whittle down some of the state’s unfunded liabilities.

Among the tax relief proposals that lawmakers will consider is a plan to create a refundable state earned income tax credit similar to the existing federal earned income credit for low-income, working families, Luke said.

Also on the table are proposals to increase the state’s tiny tax credit for low-income renters to make it more generous, and to expand the modest state tax credit for low-income taxpayers for food purchases, Luke said.

She said some of the extra money could also be used to reduce the huge backlog in repair and maintenance projects for the University of Hawaii and public school buildings.

“Every year we’re trying to catch up,” she said. “That problem is not going to go away, so it’s an opportunity for us to do it.”

The turnaround in state finances has been extraordinary. A year ago Ige warned the state was facing “historic” budget shortfalls amid the pandemic, and predicted state finances would not rebound until 2024.

Since then, millions of tourists from the mainland have surged back into Hawaii, and they are paying top dollar for hotels, dining out and car rentals. And all of their spending is boosting state tax collections.

Even the latest threat from the Covid-19 omicron variant does not seem to phase them, said economist Carl Bonham, who is a member of the Council on Revenues.

“What we’re seeing right now is that U.S. visitors don’t seem to care. They’re traveling, and it doesn’t seem to matter what’s going on,” he said.

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