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TAX MAN: Foundation on the lookout for ‘stealth taxes’

Here at the Tax Foundation of Hawai‘i, we try to follow and report on bills proposing new taxes. We try like heck to pick up any bill that mentions taxes, or affects the tax codes. But that’s not enough.

Lawmakers can be very crafty and propose things that don’t look like taxes, and they sometimes fool the Hawai‘i State Tax Watch Doggie’s nose. Here are some examples of recent stealth tax bills.

House Bill 2399, for example, establishes an “Extended Producer Responsibility Program” that is designed to slap a “fee” on anyone who imports or sells “fast-moving consumer goods,” which means anything non-durable like food or drink.

The fee in the current draft of the bill is $150 for each metric ton of packaging material placed in the market. The state Department of Health is tasked with administering the program.

As currently drafted, the fee could apply multiple times in the economic chain. If supplier A, for example, sells paper plates to plate lunch truck B, who sells plate lunches on the plates, then both A and B would be liable for the fee.

Worse, the bill as drafted is designed to make the law hard to find. The bill as drafted is a “temporary” measure designed to sunset on June 30, 2028, and as such the law, if passed, won’t even be put in the Hawai‘i Revised Statutes. Those who don’t already know about this law would be unlikely to find it…until it’s too late.

Some of the trade associations of affected producers testified that the Legislature established a Plastic Source Reduction Work Group in 2020, and that work group extensively debated the issues and concluded that a more careful study of producer responsibility was needed.

This bill, however, basically tells that group, “To heck with that study. We are going to impose the tax now.”

This bill is still alive and will be debated by a House-Senate conference committee.

Senate Bill 3040, sponsored by our state Department of Accounting and General Services, deals with state procurement, namely where the state buys goods and services from other businesses. The bill directs the state procurement administrator to procure and administer automated procurement systems, and then collect a transaction fee from all vendors using those systems.

The bill doesn’t tell us how much the fee is going to be. Rather, it gives the State Procurement Office the authority to set the fee to cover procurement automation system costs. The Procurement Office in its testimony estimated that those costs would be $5 million to set up the system and thereafter $500,000 to $1 million per year in maintenance and licensing fees.

The bill does not make it mandatory for any vendor to use the system — but we think that’s the logical next step.

This bill is also set to go to a House-Senate conference.

Last year, the state Department of Land and Natural Resources was pushing SB1173, an “Ocean Stewardship User Fee,” which would have extracted an extra dollar from each passenger or customer using or riding on commercial vessels water craft, or water sports equipment.

The moneys in the fund were to be used for marine resource conservation, marine resource impact mitigation measures, and replacing mooring buoys and other infrastructure.

Oh, and 20% of it would go to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs as ceded land revenues.

Interestingly, the bill also contained a provision saying that the fee wouldn’t count as a gross receipt for commercial vessel operators who need to pay the state a monthly fee based on gross receipts.

That bill was proposed in 2021 and carried over to the current legislative session. However, that bill never made it out of House Finance Committee.

Taxes come in many sizes and shapes. Can you find them all?


Tom Yamachika is president of the Tax Foundation of Hawai‘i.
Source: The Garden Island

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