Hawaii Supreme Court now holds fate of con am ballot question

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A controversial ballot question rests in the hands of the Hawaii Supreme Court justices.

They heard arguments Thursday on whether the state should be allowed to collect property taxes for education.

The question on the ballot reads, “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 counties want the justices to invalidate the question on the ballot. They argue that parts of the question aren’t clear to most voters.

“All that I’m saying is that the language is sufficiently unclear and misleading so that the voters actually will not know what they are voting for when they vote for this amendment,” said Donna Leong, city corporation counsel.

“If you read the ballot question as a whole, it does make sense. If you parse it out to certain words within the question, then you may have a problem,” said Russell Suzuki, state attorney general.

The counties have argued that if approved, this could ultimately allow the state to tax residents on their primary homes and force landlords to raise the rent.

“You would concede that the Legislature could impose this surcharge on residential real property that’s owner-occupied?” asked Chief Justice Mark Recktenwald.

“I would say that that’s a possibility, but it’s probably not going to happen, because there is the review process by the Legislature,” said Suzuki.

“If I’m actually buying it for somebody to live or rent out, how do I know as a voter that that’s not going to be taxed?” asked Associate Justice Paula Nakayama.

“Then I think you should probably vote no,” said Suzuki.

The teachers’ union, which has been pushing the proposal, says there’s a way to keep the Legislature from doing what everybody fears.

“The easy answer is democracy. I think any legislator that went after renters or low-income people would not be in the Legislature in the next year,” said Corey Rosenlee, HSTA president.

He adds that the proposal was already cleared at a Circuit Court hearing and he sees a similar result with the Supreme Court.

At a news conference after the arguments, Leong said she was encouraged by how the hearing went, and is “cautiously optimistic” that the counties will prevail.

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