On Oct. 18, the Supreme Court of Hawaii held oral argument on a petition by the four counties to invalidate “Con-Am,” the constitutional amendment ballot measure that would allow the state to slap a “surcharge,” essentially an additional property tax, on “investment” real property.
We now know that the court invalidated the ballot measure with an opinion to follow, like what was recently done in Arizona. We present here some highlights from the oral argument.
On the counties’ side, Honolulu Corporation Counsel Donna Leong seemed to run into stormy seas early when she argued that the new taxing power potentially applied to even residential property, because everyone who buys a home here hopes that its value will go up and can then be sold at a higher price somewhere further down the pike.
Justice Michael Wilson pointed out that if all property could be considered investment property, then why does the new taxation power apply to “investment” real property instead of “all” real property? But then Justice Sabrina McKenna jumped in with a bombshell: a prior Hawaii Supreme Court case, Cieri v. Leticia Query Realty, 80 Haw. 54 (1995), said, “[R]eal estate is, particularly in Hawaii, both scarce and expensive.
As a result, the purchase of real estate or a residence likely is the largest ‘investment’ a person in Hawaii may make in a lifetime.” That case held that a buyer of real estate could sue the seller and the seller’s Realtor under Hawaii’s consumer fraud laws because the buyer had committed money in a “personal investment.”
When state Attorney General Russell Suzuki came up to the podium, he started by saying that the Hawaii Supreme Court didn’t have jurisdiction and should essentially get out of the Legislature’s way … which is probably not something you should be telling the court right out of the gate. After fierce questioning that followed, he was forced to concede that the Legislature might be able to surcharge primary residences if the Con-Am passed, leading to:
Justice Paula Nakayama: “Let me ask you this, suppose I had the money to buy a house for my daughter, for her to live in. That’s why I’m buying this house. Is that included as investment property?”
Suzuki: “I think it’s to be defined by the Legislature.”
Nakayama: “So how is a person supposed to vote on this? If I’m not buying this house in order, I think Ms. Leong mentioned, in order for property to increase as an investment, but I’m actually buying it for somebody to live in and not rent out. How do I know as a voter that that’s not going to be taxed?”
Suzuki: “Then I think you should probably vote ‘no.’”
Laughter broke out across the whole audience.
McKenna then pushed Suzuki to concede that nothing in the measure would guarantee that the surcharge would result in a net increase in money for education.
“Couldn’t these amounts actually be used to substitute for general fund funding, and the Legislature is actually not required to increase public education funding, correct?” McKenna asked.
“The appropriation powers are with the Legislature so that is correct, but the intent here is to fund public education,” Suzuki said.
We can’t expect the Hawaii Supreme Court to void any confusing or sneakily worded ballot measure like this one all the time. So we as voters need to make the effort to really understand what we are voting on when we are staring at a question on the ballot.
We would do well to remember the opening sentence of our state constitution: “All political power of this state is inherent in the people and the responsibility for the exercise thereof rests with the people.”
Tom Yamachika is president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii.