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Where Does The Pea in This Shell Game Belong?

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By Lowell L. Kalapa

Last week we looked at possible tax increases and in particular the legislative smoke and mirrors of allowing the counties to impose a 1% retail sales tax.
This week the spotlight shifts to Honolulu where the mayor has proposed that instead of raising the county tax on fuel, that the vehicle weight tax be increased to help pay for recently arbitrated salary increases for police officers. While he admits that raising taxes dedicated for highway improvements in order to pay police salaries can’t pass statutory muster because the motor vehicle weight tax is supposed to be used to finance county highways, he has a plan.
Under his proposal he would propose a new county ordinance that would allow the receipts of the motor vehicle weight tax to supplement the bus transportation fund. This change would be based on the argument that bus transportation is related to the use of the roads and therefore would be a legitimate use of the motor vehicle weight tax.
In turn, since the bus transportation would get this new infusion of financing, it would then not need support from the county’s general fund. The general funds that would no longer be needed to supplement the bus transportation system would then be used to pay the salary increases for police officers.
Let’s watch that pea under the shell once more. Motor vehicle weight taxes paid by drivers on Oahu would be increased so that the operations of the bus system can be subsidized while the subsidy that used to come from the county general fund for the bus company would then be used to pay police salary increases.
What a shell game! Taxes that are supposed to go to repair the roads used by drivers will now be used to pay for the bus system that manages to tear up the roads even faster with their heavy weight. And the money that was used to subsidize the bus system will now be used to pay for police protection and safety. Has anyone asked first of all whether the police do nothing but monitor the county highways and what will city officials do when there isn’t enough money to maintain the county highways?
Dedicating the receipts of a tax which has a direct relationship between the benefit and beneficiaries insures that those who benefit from the taxes paid are the very ones who pay those taxes. And while Honolulu’s mayor may argue that the bus system helps to alleviate traffic congestion, remember that it is the car owner who pays the weight tax and not the bus rider.
Yes, the bus system may reduce congestion on one hand, but during the recent bus strike many motorists felt that traffic flowed much better.
What is the rush to raise the money for pay raises? Regardless of whether the money is raised now or next year, police officers will still be owed their pay increase from July 1 of this year and thus could be paid retroactively. Given that public safety benefits all residents of the county, the money needed to pay the salary increases should come from all taxpayers. That means the money should come from the general fund of which the real property tax makes up the bulk of that fund.
True, real property rates can’t be adjusted until next spring. However, if the mayor feels it is imperative that police officers need to be paid on a current basis, then the only avenue that is available is to start cutting services based on a priority of importance to the health and safety of the community. Certainly while reducing or eliminating programs and spending is not easy, it is a matter of setting and implementing priorities.
If taxpayers and the community at large believe it is important to pay police officers more as outlined in the binding arbitration agreement and raising taxes is not acceptable, then reduction in spending is the only alternative left.
But will elected officials have the political will to effect those cuts or will they resort to hiding the higher cost of operating county government in nickel and dime tax increase like the motor vehicle weight tax or an increase in the gasoline tax?
Playing the shell game of disguising the tax increase to meet statutory edicts is just plain not honest. Not only is it not being honest with the highway user, but it is also not being honest with the intent and spirit of the law.

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