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Hawaii County joins ballot fight: Lawsuit seeks to strike education tax off Nov. 6 ballot

Saying the language is too vague, Hawaii County has joined the state’s other three counties in a lawsuit to strike from the Nov. 6 ballot a constitutional amendment allowing a special property tax for education.

The amended lawsuit filed late Wednesday in Circuit Court in Honolulu seeks an injunction to remove the ballot language before ballots go to the printer Sept. 7. It names Lt. Gov. Doug Chin, Chief Election Officer Scott Nago and F.M. Scotty Anderson, chairman of the state Elections Commission.

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The lawsuit claims the ballot title and the ballot question are misleading and deceptive, the term “investment real property” is not defined and is therefore vague and over-broad, the legislative procedure for adopting the amendment was flawed, not transparent and improper and the measure interferes with home rule of the counties.

The ballot question is simple: “Shall the legislature be authorized to establish, as provided by law, a surcharge on investment real property to be used to support public education?”

The explicit changes to the constitution are not described on the ballot.

Currently, the constitution states, “all functions, powers and duties relating to the taxation of real property shall be exercised exclusively by the counties.”

If the ballot initiative passes, this wording will be appended, “provided that the legislature may establish, as provided by law, a surcharge on investment real property.”

The amendment further goes on to add, “Funding of public education shall be determined by the legislature; provided that revenues derived from a surcharge on investment real property pursuant to section 3 of article VIII shall be used to support public education.”

The constitutional change leaves it up to a future Legislature to set the amount of the surcharge, define what constitutes “investment real property” and detail what would qualify to “support public education.”

A complaint in a lawsuit tells only one side of the story. The state has yet to file a response to the complaint, said James Walther, spokesman for the Department of the Attorney General.

“Our office is still reviewing and developing a response to the lawsuit filed by the counties, and we aren’t able to provide any comment about it at this time,” he said.

Corey Rosenlee, president of the Hawaii State Teachers Association, which pushed for the legislation putting the amendment on the ballot, characterized the lawsuit as a “waste of time.”

“Basically they’re using the ballot language as an excuse because they don’t like it,” Rosenlee said. “But that’s not how it works. The people get the chance to vote.”

The Hawaii County Council Finance Committee is set to hear a presentation from Finance Department staff at 2 p.m. Tuesday on the ramifications of the constitutional amendment.

The meeting is scheduled for Hilo council chambers with public testimony also available through videoconference from the West Hawaii Civic Center, Waimea and Pahoa council offices, the old Kohala courthouse and Naalehu state office building.

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“The proposed constitutional amendments would authorize the legislature to expand its taxing powers by imposing an additional real property tax on investment real property, which may adversely affect the Counties’ ability to raise their own real property tax revenue and may affect the Counties’ issuance of general obligation bonds necessary to finance capital improvement projects,” the complaint states.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.