Photo: Emily Metcalf
Waikiki Beach (Photo: Emily Metcalf)

Are Hawaii lawmakers killing the golden goose and the golden egg?

Hawaii relies on tourism, its most lucrative industry, to fuel the economy. There was a record 8 million visitors in Hawaii last year who spent a collective $14 billion in 2012. Most spend an average of $196 per person per day or $1,800 per trip.

But now Hawaii lawmakers are considering a proposal that would increase the hotel room tax known as the Transient Accommodation Tax (TAT) by 2 percent from 9.25 to 11.25 percent. Lawmakers say they want and need the money for the general fund to subsidize budget items like social services and education.

Tourism officials and those who work in the industry are warning lawmakers that the added tax could severely damage the industry and drive visitors away.

Mike McCartney, president and CEO of the Hawaii Tourism Authority and a former legislator, said the industry is opposed to the increase because it will be bad for business.

“Hawaii is a leisure destination, where the visitor’s spending is discretionary. As such, our visitor market is price-sensitive, and any increase could drive a traveler to a competing destination. An increase to the TAT will only diminish Hawaii’s ability to compete in a price-sensitive market,” McCartney said.

Some lawmakers claim Hawaii’s room tax rate is lower than other destinations. But McCartney points out that the TAT increase to 11.25% does not include another tax imposed on all transactions and services in Hawaii, the General Excise Tax.

Lowell Kalapa, president of the Tax Foundation of Hawaii, has testified against the proposed increase at the state legislature. He agrees if lawmakers are going to compare rates and say Hawaii’s tax on hotel room rentals is low, they need to consider the combined impact of the TAT and the General Excise Tax.

“Unfortunately, or perhaps intentionally, what lawmakers forget is that the 7.25 percent – currently 9.25 percent – rate is over and above the 4.16 percent general excise tax which is also levied on hotel room rentals. Thus, the current tax rate on hotel room rentals nears 12 percent or 13 percent depending on whether the rental is in Honolulu, where the general excise tax rate is 4.5 percent, or on the Neighbor Islands where the general excise tax rate is 4 percent,” Kalapa said.

Lawmakers also have to compare room rates to other locations, because Hawaii’s hotel room rates tend to be higher than other leisure destinations, he said.

“…the lower hotel room tax rate combined with the general excise tax generates substantially larger per day costs for the visitor,” Kalapa said.

The TAT has already been increased “temporarily” from 7.25 percent to 9.25 percent, an additional tax that is supposed to sunset in 2015.

“Three years ago in the midst of the worst economic meltdown since the Great Depression, state lawmakers turned to the hotel industry and asked them not to stand in the way of a rate increase of the state’s hotel room tax or transient accommodation tax to help bail out the state general fund as the budget short fall was forecasted to top $1 billion,” Kalapa said.

“Now both the administration and some legislators would like to hang onto that money and have proposed making the two percentage point increase permanent. The administration also has a proposal in to increase the rate yet another two percentage points to 11.25 percent.”

Kalapa has been following the TAT debate since the inception of the tax. The TAT tax was originally adopted to build a state convention center in 1986 because tourism officials believed a convention center was key in attracting conventions, he said. The industry originally agreed to a 2 percent rate but at the end of the 1986 session, lawmakers increased the rate to 5 percent and did not earmark the proceeds for building a convention center.

When a convention center site was selected five years later, Kalapa said lawmakers had spent much of the money set aside for the convention center on other programs and services, so they increased the tax again to 6 percent.

A task force recommended that the rate be increased to 7.25 percent so legislators could decrease the state income tax, but lawmakers increased both the TAT and income tax rate.

Hawaii now has the highest income tax rate in the nation. Hawaii’s convention center largely sits empty on the edge of Waikiki. And lawmakers are looking for ways to what amounts to a 4 percent increase to the TAT permanent.

Kalapa said the TAT has always been a “big target” for lawmakers because the visitors who don’t vote here pay the tax. He maintains lawmakers have to stop the “money grab,” for the TAT and a host of other tax increase proposals, especially now that Hawaii taxpayers are being told the economy is better.

“Making that 9.25% rate permanent reinforces the perception that neither the administration nor the legislature can be held to its word. Guess when it comes to “easy” money, it is difficult to keep one’s word,” Kalapa said.

McCartney is concerned about the impact any increase would have on the 166,000 visitor related jobs.

“Currently, the visitor industry supports more than 166,000 jobs and we anticipate this number to grow this year. However, we are still well below the peak of more than 178,000 jobs in 2005, and the TAT increase could cause a loss of jobs in the tourism sector,” McCartney said.

Instead of increasing the TAT, McCartney said tourism officials will continue to attract more visitors by investing in the industry and diversifying Hawaii’s “tourism profile” in the leisure and meetings, conventions and incentive markets and emerging major markets.

“…We can generate greater revenue that will benefit the entire state,” McCartney added.

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Hawaii Reporter is an award-winning, independent Hawaii-based news and opinion journal founded in 2001 and launched in February 2002. The journal's staff have won a number of top awards from the Society of Professional Journalists, including the top investigative news reporting awards, business reporting awards, government reporting awards, and online news reporting awards. Hawaii Reporter has a weekly television news show, News Behind the News, which airs on Mondays at 1:30 p.m. and Wednesdays at 6:30 p.m.