Rail And The Mufi-Lingle Dustup

Rick Hamada
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Wednesday - June 21, 2006

The proposed rail transit project, replete with tax increases and a multi-billion dollar price tag, has hit a bump in the track from which it may not recover. That bump may very well be Mayor Mufi Hannemann, the transit project’s most ardent supporter.

The mayor’s public and petty comments directed at Gov. Linda Lingle have revealed Mufi’s caustic side, which has been whispered about since his entry into politics. The mayor used pejoratives such as the governor being in “la-la land” and equating her to “the new Rene Mansho of this new transit debate.”

Personally, I have always found Mayor Hannemann to be gracious, engaging and very likeable. His affable public persona has served him well in securing the city’s top job. However, his recent vituperation regarding Gov. Lingle is disturbing.

The dispute continues as to which agency will be responsible for collecting the .5 percent General Excise Tax increase for Honolulu. The increase was approved by the Honolulu City Council to fund rail transit and is effective Jan. 1, 2007. However, after some creative political wrangling and maneuvering, there is no mechanism in place to collect the extra monies. That’s right - a tax increase with no way to collect it.

Gov. Lingle has consistently maintained if the city passes a GET increase, the city should be responsible for administering and collecting the tax. The Legislature failed to meet the governor’s demand to legally mandate the city to do exactly that. Political minutiae and gamesmanship aside, including the disingenuous role of Senate President Robert Bunda and House Speaker Calvin Say, the state has abdicated its role and responsibility, which contributes greatly to this mess.

Despite the differences at the state level, the failure of nailing down the critical issue of tax collection rests with the Mayor, specifically with senior members of his administration. Clearly, the governor’s opposition to the state collecting the tax and the legislative leadership favoring the state collecting the tax demonstrates a highly contentious situation. This was made crystal clear with the legislative session concluding the first of May with no allocation for the state to collect the tax or monies appropriated to the city. A bigger red flag could not have been raised.

So why did the Hannemann administration wait, literally, until the very last minute to request $5 million from the city council to pay administrative costs in order to collect the GET increase? Those in charge waited weeks before doing anything. It really is inexplicable. The only conclusion I can reach is his senior staff believed they would have the votes to do whatever they please. But the request was shot down 6-3 ( those voting in support of the mayor were councilmembers Todd Apo, Gary Okino and Rod Tam). This was a stinging rebuke of the mayor and his administration.

Clearly, with a council which supported the GET increase by a vote of 7-2, the mayor’s team should have shepherded the votes for the tax collection funding. Instead, they have fomented animus amongst their colleagues and unease throughout the community. This is a political fumble of biblical proportion.

Is this latest misstep an indication of the future? We are embarking on a multi-year, multi-billion-dollar public works project. Those responsible for its execution are demonstrating a lack of leadership and effectiveness. When the mayor insults and derides the governor, we are witnessing a tremendous chasm which may never be bridged. In order for this project to move forward, the mayor must renounce his comments and extend a conciliatory branch to the governor.

If not, then this project will be scarred and rendered derailed before it begins.

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