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Hawaii Gov. Green pleased with ‘first steps’ toward sweeping changes

Hawaii lawmakers did not rubber stamp the governor’s plans in the just concluded session, where they were asked to consider proposals on homelessness, changes to the state income tax structure and a fee to lessen the impact of tourists.

Lawmakers approved a $38.3 billion budget for the fiscal 2023-25 biennium that included many priorities outlined by Gov. Josh Green in January, but made less sweeping changes than originally envisioned to the tax structure, and the proposal for a $50 tourist tax, called a “green fee,” was left out of the final budget plan.

Green, who took office in January, had proposed sweeping changes to the tax structure, declared a state of emergency around homelessness and prioritized healthcare in his State of the State speech earlier this year.

Though some of his proposals were reduced in scope, Green said he was pleased with the first steps achieved.

Lawmakers approved more than 200 bills that Green now has 45 days to act on.

He pointed to funding for affordable housing and homeless programs as successes, though he had asked for $900 million for homelessness when he declared a state of emergency around the issue earlier this year.

The budget allocated $60 million for homelessness programs, $280 million for the Rental Housing Revolving Fund and $100 million for the Dwelling Unit Revolving Fund over the two-year biennium.

The Hawaii Community Development Authority will receive $150 million for infrastructure improvements to housing developments.

The budget also includes $30 million in student loan forgiveness that will be used to recruit and retain healthcare workers, and around $140 million to improve rural hospitals.

The $50 fee on tourists that failed to gain traction would have shifted some of the tax burden from middle-class Hawaiians to tourists, who fuel the state’s economy.

The fee would have paid for a license to visit state parks, forests, hiking trails and other natural resources operated by the Department of Land and Natural Resources. The money would have been used to preserve and manage natural and cultural resources to alleviate the impact of the 10 million visitors the state sees annually.

Green vowed in a statement to use “this is as an opportunity to have a broader conversation about tourism destination management and work on a detailed bill for next session.”

“The visitor impact fee has a lot of support from residents, visitors, lawmakers, and agencies and organizations,” said Carissa Cabrera, project manager for Hawaii Green Fee, an advocacy organization on the issue. “We will build on the work we have done to ensure that our cultural and natural resources receive the protection and care they need and deserve and that the people and organizations who help care for them get the financial support they need.”

The Hawaii Tourism Authority survived efforts this session to dismantle it in favor of creating a Hawaii Destination Management Authority that would manage tourism to lessen its impact on the environment, rather than focus on marketing programs to attract visitors to the state.

“It is important that we figure out how we can shift this agency from its focus of marketing tourism to more strategically looking at destination management that would attract and educate responsible visitors,” Green said.

The authority “has promised better, more frequent and honest communication with the Legislature and the public and clearer focus on destination management,” said state Sen. Lynn DeCoite, chair of the Senate Energy, Economic Development and Tourism Committee.

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