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Rail vote could cost House leader her post

By Kevin Dayton; Star-Advertiser; September 6, 2017

Newly appointed House Majority Leader Cindy Evans of Hawaii island could lose her leadership role in a bit of collateral damage from the Honolulu rail controversy.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said Friday that Evans offered to resign as majority leader because she was voting against Senate Bill 4, the rail bailout bill that will provide another $2.37 billion to help fund the completion of the 20-mile Honolulu train line.

Her vote presents the House leadership with a dilemma because the majority leader is the second-highest-­ranking member of the leadership team, and lawmakers in that job are expected to support the positions of the Democratic caucus.

That includes supporting the bills that emerge from House committees, which are all controlled by members of the Democratic House majority, Saiki told reporters.

Evans, 65, was officially named the House majority member only last week, a position that carries considerable political clout. She was first elected to the state House in 2002, and was House majority floor leader from 2015 until this year.

The rail bailout bill proved to be particularly controversial on the neighbor islands because it increases the statewide hotel room tax by 1 percentage point to 10.25 percent to help fund the rail project.

That component of the bill was strongly criticized by some neighbor island residents who interpreted the hotel tax increase as a move to force the neighbor islands to help pay for Honolulu’s financially troubled rail project. Some felt it places an unfair tax burden on communities that had no say over whether rail should be built, and will tax residents who might never ride the rail line.

Rail supporters counter that the vast majority of hotel taxes are paid by tourists, not by Hawaii residents, and note that Oahu regularly subsidizes neighbor island projects through the use of gasoline taxes, weight taxes and registration fees that are collected in Honolulu.

Evans (D, Kaupulehu­-Waimea-Halaula) told House leaders before the final vote in special session Friday that she would vote against SB 4 “because of circumstances on the Big Island and within her district,” Saiki said.

“We understood her concerns, and she offered to submit her resignation as majority leader if she voted no,” Saiki said. Evans did finally vote against the bill.

Saiki said there are two “schools of thought” on the issue. Some argue that on major issues such as the vote on the rail bill, all lawmakers should be free to vote their conscience. Another point of view is that since the majority leader runs the Democratic caucus, that person has a responsibility to support and defend the caucus’ positions.

Saiki said Tuesday he is still considering the issue, and plans to make a recommendation to the House leadership team by next week.

Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English (D, Molokai-­Lanai-East Maui) also voted against SB 4, but it is unclear whether that vote could affect his leadership role.

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