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State Legislature opens amid debate over death, rail, jails

By Sophie Cocke; Star Advertiser; January 18, 2017
State Legislature opens amid debate over death, rail, jails

Opening Day in the House of Representatives. (Dennis Oda/Star Advertiser)

Star Advertiser

Several hundred people gathered at the state Capitol in downtown Honolulu Wednesday morning to kick off the opening of this year’s legislative session in which lawmakers are expecting spirited debates on issues of rail financing, “death with dignity,” overcrowded jails and the state’s ongoing homeless problem.

Senate President Ron Kouchi and House Speaker Joe Souki delivered opening remarks in their respective chambers amid the aroma of leis, followed by local musical performances.

Senate and House leaders, as well as Gov. David Ige, briefed the media afterwards about some of this year’s top legislative priorities, which will have to be implemented amid lower than expected tax collections.

Foremost on the minds of legislators was Honolulu's rail project. The price tag has soared from $5.26 billion as recently as 2012 to as much as $9.5 billion today.

Two years ago, the Legislature extended the general excise tax by five years so that it would expire at the end of 2027 in order to cover mounting costs, but only after Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell weathered intense questioning over the project’s financials. The mayor will have to make his case again to the Legislature this year.

Both Souki and Kouchi have signaled their support for the project, but it remains to be seen what type of tax extension or hike lawmakers might ultimately sign off on.

“Rail in one way or another is going to come to a conclusion in this legislative session and that will be certainly occupying much of the time during the session,” Kouchi said during opening remarks. “I personally have supported rail. I hope we find a path, but we are not close to finding that path yet. And we certainly need a lot more information for us to be able to make our final judgment on the rail issue.”

Souki said he supports plans to make the excise tax surcharge for the rail project permanent to help finance construction of the rail line, but said he wants to reduce the half-percent tax rate of the excise surcharge. To make up the difference, Souki said the city should also help finance construction from its own treasury.

“It does come at a high cost, but make no mistake, rail is the key to the future of Oahu,” Souki said.

Souki also urged his colleagues to approve a “death with dignity” measure, although he recently acknowledged in an interview that it may take more than one year to convince the 76-member Legislature to approve the idea.

Souki promised to introduce a bill for what some describe as “compassionate choices” in dying, meaning establishing a legal way to provide medical aid in dying for people who are terminally ill and mentally capable.

John Radcliffe, a longtime lobbyist who is supporting the death-with-dignity proposal, sat in the front row on the floor of the state House and applauded when Souki made his remarks. Radcliffe has been coping with liver cancer, and is a close friend of Souki.

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