Mayor asks lawmakers for aid with little fire ant

Mayor Alan Arakawa asked state legislators Wednesday for more state agriculture inspectors to help combat the little fire ant, a stealthy invasive species confirmed to have made its way from the Big Island to Maui and Oahu late last year.

He also asked for support to allow counties to add a surcharge of up to 1 percent to the state general excise tax to allow for counties to take in more money.

“The other day, someone said that if 2013 was the year of the shark, 2014 may be the year of the ant,” Arakawa said, alluding to the eight shark attacks in Maui waters last year and the discovery of the invasive ants in shipments of Hawaiian tree ferns, called hapuu.

Arakawa said that, if not quickly dealt with, the invasive stinging ant will do harm to the economy, environment and human health.

“We need added positions to allow us to responsibly address these ants, in addition to our ongoing efforts to deal with miconia, coqui frogs, axis deer and other related matters,” Arakawa said before a joint committee hearing of the Senate Ways and Means and the House Finance committees.

Wednesday was the opening day of the Legislature at the state capitol on Oahu.

Currently, there are seven agricultural inspectors on Maui, according to the state. Before state budget reductions in 2009, there were 17 inspectors.

Maui County spokesman Rod Antone said Arakawa was asking Gov. Neil Abercrombie to support his request for more inspectors for Maui County. At least one inspector would be for Maui and another for Molokai, Antone said.

While the need for more inspectors is mostly to halt and manage invasive species such as fire ants, Antone said the personnel also would assist in enforcement if a pending county bill becomes law and regulates pesticides and genetically modified organisms by commercial agricultural companies.

Another bill Arakawa is seeking approval for is a law to specifically outline the governor and the mayor’s emergency powers related to emergencies and disasters.

In addition to asking for county-specific legislation, Arakawa asked legislators to support the Hawaii Council of Mayors proposals.

This includes a bill to allow counties to add a surcharge of up to 1 percent to the state general excise tax.

Big Island Mayor Billy Kenoi said mayors want the flexibility to raise the tax with a surcharge versus having to go to the Legislature every year for a greater share of the transient accommodations tax, or hotel room tax, according to a report by West Hawaii Today.

The general excise tax is 4 percent for Maui, Kauai and Hawaii island counties. The City and County of Honolulu has a half-cent additional charge to help pay for its rail transit project.

If the bill prevails, counties can raise the surcharge by ordinance.

Now, the transient accommodations tax share is capped at $93 million for all counties. Maui County receives $21 million per year of that hotel room tax revenue, according to county officials.

The Legislature has reduced the counties’ share of the room tax revenue, which counties rely on to defray costs from visitor use of island infrastructure, parks and other services. Counties have been unsuccessful in persuading state lawmakers to restore the county’s room tax share to the former, higher levels.

But in his opening day speech Wednesday, House Speaker Joe Souki of Wailuku called for a removal of the cap on the hotel room money for the counties, citing the state’s growing economy, a stabilized construction industry, strong tourism numbers and low unemployment.

He cited “hope” and “optimism” this year and a “chance to create opportunities.”

“In this strong economy, should we not be thinking about a greater partnership with our counties, who provide much of the services that directly support tourism?” he asked lawmakers. “They are the ones who maintain our roads and parks and provide the law enforcement officers and first responders who directly serve our visitors as well as our kamaaina.”

To compensate for the loss in state revenues, Souki suggested that the state study ways to collect sales tax that are generated by out-of-state online companies and go uncollected.

This session, legislators may consider bills on a wide range of topics, from green energy to government transparency.

Lawmakers filed paperwork on bills on issues such as making kindergarten mandatory, then referred them to subject-matter committees for detailed review and discussion.

Across the Capitol, Senate President Donna Mercado Kim said senators spent most of the legislative off-season learning about the complexities of issues, such as genetically modified foods, to make better decisions.

“We were very engaged during the interim, giving us a jump-start on this session,” she said.

* Melissa Tanji can be reached at The Associated Press contributed to this report.