Since launching his campaign for governor, Josh Green has had a consistent twin message: Hawaii needs more money and it should come from visitors to the state.
He has listed increasing taxes on tourists as high on his “to do” list.
“As governor, I will propose a $50 impact fee for visitors,” candidate Green said while still a state senator.
The specific details have changed, but the theory remains the same: taxes need to go up and they should be imported. That means Hawaii citizens don’t pay; instead, someone else or another entity should cough up the money.
If you are searching for the easy description, try the cliche, “Don’t tax you, don’t tax me, tax that fellow behind the tree.”
The late Louisiana Sen. Russell B. Long is usually credited with the verse, although political historians can trace the tax advice back to the 1930s.
This year, the “Green fee” is a proposed $25 charge imposed on out-of-state visitors checking in to hotels or short-term rentals (STRs). The campaign promise was to “enact a climate impact fee on tourists.” The $25 charge would be levied on visitors when they stay at an island hotel or STR.
The reelection campaign has not yet started, although Green has already announced for reelection — and how well he delivers on the new pledge will, in large part, be fueled by how far he can budge the tourism industry to cooperate.
“I believe this is not too much to ask of visitors to our islands,” Green said during the 2024 Legislature’s opening-day ceremonies.
Green may not be holding to campaign promises word for word, but his vows are close.
He has also promised to “Make housing for Hawaii residents our top priority by aggressively enforcing existing laws to shut down the 25,000 illegal vacation rentals across the state, taxing the 35,000 vacant investor units, and limiting permits and increasing taxes on new luxury developments by out-of-state investors.”
Former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann, who is now Hawaii Tourism Authority board chairman, said “we don’t want to see a blanket fee that will go into a general fund.”
He added: “We want to tie it back to something that has to do with the environment, some type of impact the visitors feel they have when they come here. We’re OK with having that dialogue.”
Talking about how much to tax tourists is one thing; Hawaii has had that chat for decades. But if it is time for a serious talk, watch for the debate to sharpen.
Hawaii’s tourist industry will fiercely fight a tax increase. It has in the past, and it will do so again. The late former Honolulu Mayor Frank Fasi made a career out of campaigning for taxing tourists, but most local politicians prefer to let someone else take up the fight.
Gov. Green has chosen his cause — and it will be up to him to manage it and then win without making the state’s major industry, tourism, into a permanent enemy.
Richard Borreca writes on politics on Sundays. Reach him at email@example.com.