Nothing is ever done in a straightforward manner at the state Legislature. Take the case of transportation funding.
At the start of this year's session, lawmakers on both sides of the atrium were talking about a willingness to allow counties to raise the state excise tax to solve one of their most pressing problems: traffic congestion.
The idea, which had been floated before, called for the county councils to vote on the extra tax, then take all the money and spend it on whatever transit projects they thought appropriate.
That's called home rule, and a lot of people, including Gov. Linda Lingle, think that's the best way to deal with problems. Local officials using locally approved taxes often get the best results.
So the idea passed the transportation committees in both the state House and Senate and had the support of most local officials, who ultimately will have to answer for the extra taxes. It seemed like the approach had wide support on both sides of the Legislature.
Last week, things suddenly changed.
The Senate Ways and Means Committee, with little public input or testimony, gutted the original tax proposal (Senate Bill 1366) and substituted one of its own.
The big difference? Now, the state imposes the tax and gets to keep a portion of the money.
Here's the math.
Under the old proposals, according to the state tax department, the bill would have generated about $432 million for transportation. Of that, Honolulu was expected to get about $300 million; Maui, $65 million; Hawai'i County, $44 million; and Kaua'i County, $23 million.
Under the new proposal, the state would give $200 million to Honolulu, $20 million to Maui and Hawai'i counties, and $10 million to Kaua'i County. That's $250 million total, or $182 million less for "home rule" than originally planned. Even accounting for a lower $350 million estimate of total revenue provided by the offices of Ways and Means Committee Chairman Brian Taniguchi, the counties would be losing $100 million on the deal.
Where's the extra money going? The new bill calls for it to go toward tax relief, including a $50 food and medical tax credit and an increase in the standard deduction on income taxes. So the state would take with one hand and give with the other.
The real issue though, as it so often is in politics, is power.
The new plan gives the state control over the money, effectively telling the counties how much of it they'll be getting, which is what some state lawmakers, including Senate President Robert Bunda, wanted all along.
Bunda had argued early in the session that it would be better to have a state transit authority supervising the county projects, but a bill to that effect was killed in the Transportation Committee, which kept hearing those words "home rule" over and over again in testimony.
Now, it seems like the power is swinging back the other way.
The new bill even mandates that the city approve a transportation plan by January 2006 or lose the opportunity for the money. Given the complexity of the transit/rail problem and controversy surrounding it, that seems a long shot. Even if it gets done, there are doubts that the $200 million a year Honolulu would receive would be enough to help build a rail line here.
The issue is far from decided. Legislation in the House still calls for the counties to make their own decisions about transportation funding, and the competing bills have yet to be aired in the full House and Senate.
Most likely the differences will end up in conference committees, which often water down or kill good legislation when one side feels too strongly about an issue, especially when it involves power and money.
Ultimately, the disagreement might push back funding and construction of a rail system for years.
Reach Mike Leidemann at 525-5460 or firstname.lastname@example.org.