Gas-tax relief bill is dead

LIHU’E — After getting definitive word that Gov. Linda Lingle would not be releasing $2 million in appropriated state funds for county-road resurfacing projects, members of the Kaua’i County Council this week killed a bill that would have reduced county taxes on gasoline purchased at the pump.

Lingle has determined, like Democratic Gov. Ben Cayetano before her, that it is not the job of leaders in state government to fund county projects, and that money in the state Highway Fund cannot be legally used on county road projects.

The council idea was to temporarily reduce the county portion of gas taxes from 13 cents a gallon to six cents a gallon, for the period from Jan. 1, 2006 to June 30, 2006, to give drivers a slight break in what had been soaring pump prices.

Council members moved to receive for the record the bill and a resolution that would have reduced the county gas tax, effectively killing the legislation.

Meeting in the second-floor council chambers of the historic County Building Wednesday, members of the council’s Finance/Intergovernmental Relations Committee voted to receive for the record the proposal.

The fact that gas prices are on a five-consecutive-week decline may have influenced the committee members’ decision.

In addition to the county tax, federal and state taxes also are assessed for each gallon of gas sold at the pumps. Combined federal, state and county taxes are 61 cents per gallon.

Members of the council committee took the action on the gas-tax-break proposal after receiving word Lingle wouldn’t release $10 million in state funds for repairs of county roads in all four counties. Kaua’i County officials’ share was to have been $2 million.

Lingle’s legal advisors concluded money from the state Highway Fund should be used only for state highway projects, an assessment disputed by members of the state Legislature, which approved the $10 million.

The action by the council committee amounted to good news for those in the Kaua’i County Department of Public Works.

Had members of the full council approved the gas-tax break, some $1.2 million less than expected would have found its way into the county’s Highway Fund. Department leaders need the $1.2 million for re-paving and road-maintenance programs, and for other department operations.

Without the $1.2 million, the condition of county roads would worsen, and accidents could occur, leading to traffic injuries or fatalities that could trigger costly lawsuits against the county, county officials have said.

To replace the $1.2 million, members of the council were poised to transfer the same amount in unappropriated surplus funds to the county’s Highway Fund.

Because the $2 million and more in state funds aren’t coming to Kaua’i County’s coffers, members of the council committee received for the record a resolution to set the new six-cent county tax rate for a gallon of gas and repeal the old 13-cent rate. Passage of the resolution to reset the rate is required by state law.

Councilman Mel Rapozo said the tax break would have benefited residents, but noted that without the $2 million coming to Kaua’i, pursuing the legislation was no longer feasible.

“I think the key point for me when this was initially brought up, we were under the impression we were going to be getting $2 million of state funds for our road-paving projects, and now we know that we are not going to get it,” Rapozo said.

Rapozo also said he could no longer support the legislation because some residents, including Carl Imparato, gave convincing arguments against the passage of the bill at the council meeting last week.

Imparato said that the proposal, if it became law, would have given tax breaks to owners of large, gas-guzzling vehicles, encourage more folks to drive and create more pollution, and not give much of a break to owners of fuel-efficient vehicles.

Rapozo noted that the owner of a large vehicle that gets 10 miles to a gallon of gas and drives 15,000 miles a year could probably see a yearly savings of $105.

The owner of a “fuel-efficient hybrid” car that gets 50 miles a gallon would derive far smaller savings, Rapozo said.

In explaining why he would not support the measure, council Vice Chairman James Kunane Tokioka, who was a co-introducer of the bill, said members of the council only considered the legislation after learning that the state Highway Funds might be coming to leaders of the counties.

“When this information came to us, that’s how the dialogue began,” he said. “It wasn’t that we were taking money from our (county) General Fund or fuel tax now.”

Even though the bill is dead in the water at this time, Tokioka said he wanted to thank his colleagues on the council, and members of the community, for their input.

Councilman Jay Furfaro thanked Tokioka and Council-man Daryl Kaneshiro for introducing the bill to give relief to residents, and responding to what seemed like a “real crisis” in the last few weeks, in which gas prices skyrocketed before dropping recently.

The situation kept Kauaians on edge, he said.

“The reality is that none of us knew what was the final destination of the increases in the gas prices,” Furfaro said.

Kaneshiro said he saw the anxiety build among residents over fluctuating gas prices, and that he wanted to bring relief through meaningful legislation.

Furfaro said passage of the gas-tax break would have brought back some sense of normalcy for island residents who depend deeply on their vehicles to maintain their jobs and ways of life.

The price of regular-octane gas was as high as $3.85 a gallon on Kaua’i just a few weeks ago. The gas price is anticipated to drop to the mid-$2.50 range for a gallon of gas next week, due to wholesale-price declines on the Mainland.

Furfaro said it was appropriate members of the council got to hear different perspectives from members of the public in past meetings on the gas-tax bill.

Furfaro said unappropriated surplus funds are limited, and that county leaders have to use discretion when they look at using such funds, even to cover the $1.2 million gas-tax break deficit to ensure county roads are routinely paved and maintained.

Councilwoman Shaylene Iseri-Carvalho said a chief concern for her was that “there be enough money” to carry out the road-resurfacing program.

Even though Lingle has said she won’t release the $2 million to county leaders for road repaving and maintenance, Carvalho said efforts will be made to secure that funding.

The proposed gas-tax bill would have benefited visitors as well as residents, when it should benefit only residents, Carvalho also said.


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