State House majority leader removed for voting against rail

HONOLULU (AP) — Democrat House Majority Leader Cindy Evans is being removed from her leadership position for voting against the bailout bill for the Honolulu rail project.

Lawmakers in Evans’ former position are expected to support the positions of the Democratic caucus, which Evans did not do, the Honolulu Star-Advertiser reported. She offered to resign this summer after voting against the bill that will provide another $2.37 billion to help fund the completion of the 20-mile Honolulu train line.

House Speaker Scott Saiki said Wednesday that Rep. Della Au Belatti will be the new House majority leader. Rep. Mark Nakashima will take over Belatti’s old job of House vice speaker.

Evans will take over Nakashima’s former position as chairman of the House Economic Development & Business Committee.

Evans, 65, was officially named the House majority member in August. She was first elected to the state House in 2002.

This is the third shuffle of House leadership positions this year, including a reorganization in May that allowed Saiki to replace former House Speaker Joe Souki in the top House job.

The rail bailout bill proved to be particularly controversial on the Neighbor Islands because it will increase the statewide hotel room tax by 1 percentage point to 10.25 percent to fund the rail project.

That tax increase has been strongly criticized by some Neighbor Island residents who saw it as a move to force the Neighbor Islands to help pay for Honolulu’s financially troubled rail project. Some believe it puts an unfair tax burden on communities that had no say over whether rail should be built.

Rail supporters countered that the vast majority of hotel taxes are paid by tourists, not by Hawaii residents, and point out that Oahu subsidizes Neighbor Island projects through the use of gasoline taxes, weight taxes and registration fees that are collected in Honolulu.

Senate Majority Leader J. Kalani English of Maui also voted against the bill, but a spokeswoman for the Senate said that body has no policy requiring the majority leader vote for the rail bill.