Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 9 primary, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.

The following came from Robert Harris, candidate for state representative for District 48. Other candidates include Democrat Jarrett Keohokalole, Republican Eldean Kukahiko and Libertarian Kaimanu Takayama.

District 48 covers Kaneohe, Heeia, Ahuimanu, Kahaluu, Haiku Valley and Mokuoloe.

Go to Civil Beat’s Elections Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the Primary Election Ballot.

Name: Robert Harris

Office: State House of Representatives, District 48

Party: Democrat

Profession: Attorney, non-profit director

Education: Kalaheo High School Graduate; University of Hawaii at Manoa, Bachelor of Arts, Chemistry/Environmental Science; University of Hawaii, William S. Richardson School of Law.

Age: 35

Community organizations: Previously served: Hawaii State Climate Change Task Force; Hawaii Access to Justice Commission; Hawaii State Bar Association, Board of Directors; Hawaii State Bar Association, Natural Resources section chair, vice-chair, treasurer, and program director; Current: Democratic Party Precinct vice-chair; Democratic Party, Environmental Caucus member; Sierra Club, outings leader; Windward Orchid Society member; Ko’olaupoko Hawaiian Civic Club

Robert Harris, candidate for House District 48 in 2014

Robert Harris

1. Why are you running for the Hawaii Legislature? 

As the director of the Sierra Club, Hawaii Chapter, for six years, I’ve had the opportunity to work on important policy issues that affect our state’s economy, our communities, and the neighborhoods where we live in. I’ve seen first-hand the difference a single person can make in the legislature when they speak for the public’s interest in closed door meetings. I’m eager to be that person: someone who has an independent voice, and will not succumb to special interests for personal gain.

On a personal level, I grew up in Windward Oahu and graduated from Kalaheo High School. My wife and I recently achieved the exciting milestone of owning our first home, just miles from where I used to play as a kid. My daughter, Aurora, is 4 months old, and we want to make sure that she has the opportunity to grow up in Hawaii, like we did. That means reducing the cost of living, and having an economy that is strong enough to allow her to stay in Hawaii, and raise her own family here. It also means preserving the special characteristic of the windward side and helping keep the country, country.

After many years of tackling some of Hawaii’s long-term challenges, I’m ready to use my skill set to push Hawaii towards a more sustainable future.

2. Are you satisfied with the current plans to pay for the state’s unfunded liabilities? If not, how would you propose to meet pension and health obligations for public workers? 

Over the past two years, the state has made an important first step towards addressing Hawaii’s unfunded liabilities. However, the scope of the problem is significant and it will require continuous attention to ensure this problem doesn’t get out of reach. It’s the same approach my parents had with me as a kid. I was taught to set aside money for college each month. This problem is no different. By staying focused on paying down our outstanding obligations, we can steadily get out of debt.

3. Local officials and advocates have worked to address homelessness for years, yet the crisis is growing. What proposals do you have for this complicated issue? 

Real families are impacted by Hawaii’s dire homelessness problem: children growing up without the stability and safety of a home; parents unable to provide shelter for their loved ones; and a huge class of people having difficulty with employment, health care, and the ability to meaningfully contribute to society. We cannot lose sight of the individuals impacted by homelessness when we talk about this problem.

I see two primary courses of action. First, we need an adequate supply of affordable housing. This will require a commitment to developing affordable rentals and multi-family units in the urban core — instead of luxury condos, or other residences that don’t benefit the people of Hawaii.

I’m confident we can find ways to fund necessary public infrastructure improvements that allows for housing units in the urban core, without having to put the burden on the public at large. My background working on creative financing solutions in the renewable energy sector gives me experience and contacts in this area to explore new ways to fund public infrastructure improvements like roads, bike lanes, and sewer systems without having to simply rely on increased taxes.

Second, I’m going to make sure that people who are down on their luck — say if they lost their job, or can’t make ends meet in our expensive state  — have an adequate support system that helps get them back on their feet and into housing. This will include professional development, such as job training, that can assist with a successful transition.

4. Where do you stand on labeling genetically engineered food and pesticide regulation? Are these public safety issues, or are the dangers exaggerated? 

I strongly support labeling of GMO foods. The food we eat is a deeply personal matter. People should have the right to choose what goes into their bodies and those of their family members. As I interact with people in my community, it’s clear people are voicing their concerns on this issue, and they want to see disclosure. I think if we can label the amount of sodium content in a can of soup, then we can add a GMO label on foods.

Similarly, people are concerned about the impact and use of pesticides. Unfortunately, the state has critically underfunded existing agencies that regulate pesticides. This can result in what happened a few years ago, when the Department of Health found the use of an illegal pesticide, which was not approved for human consumption, being used by farms growing basil. While I’m glad this incident was eventually caught, I want to make sure this never happens again. People should feel confident when they purchase food at their local farmers’ market or supermarket that it is safe for consumption.

I also want to make sure our schools are safe places. To address this, I would support a buffer zone of potentially hazardous pesticides around schools in particular to assure that our children can play outdoors, without us parents giving it a second thought.

5. Hawaii’s cost of living is the highest in the country by many indicators. What can really be done to make things like housing, food and transportation less expensive? 

A number of factors go into the cost of living in Hawaii. There is no silver bullet solution. But what we should do is focus on things we can fix. For one, we pay three times the national average of electricity. I want to make great strides in dropping that price, particularly by using renewable resources. Here’s an example: The University of Hawaii spends approximately 20 percent of every tuition dollar on utility bills. If we could power the university through renewable energy, the savings could be used to reduce the cost of tuition. Or, we could put funds back into the public school system to make sure that we have the best teachers, and equip them with the resources they need.

Another example is the cost of housing in Hawaii. Studies have shown our state is extremely deficient in the number of affordable rentals and multi-family units. As I said earlier, we can prioritize housing that benefits the people of Hawaii, instead of building mansions and luxury condos that price most kamaaina out.

6. Would you support using liquified natural gas as part of the state’s energy sources? And how can we improve the electrical distribution system so more renewable energy can be utilized to bring costs down? 

Renewable energy is now the cheapest form of electricity; it’s cheaper than coal, cheaper than oil, and cheaper than liquified natural gas (LNG). Several months ago, Texas received 38 percent of its power from wind energy. As you probably guessed, this is not because Texas is green, or even progressive, it’s because it was the cheapest form of electricity. Hawaii can learn from this. We should be at the forefront of installing inexpensive renewable energy so that we can see benefits today, and into the future. I also believe state regulators could do a better job of ensuring that these price savings are achieved and go into the pockets of consumers.

Utilities by design are cautious and conservative. But with disruptive technologies coming online, like solar power, we need our utilities to become innovative and nimble. We need it to adopt a new business model that allows utilities to be a distributor of clean, renewable energy, instead of a producer of electricity from dirty and expensive oil and coal. By moving to a more modern grid, we could have a system where one person’s solar panel is charging another person’s electric vehicle. And that electric vehicle provides power when a cloud goes overhead. On an island state, this is simply a commonsense approach.

Before we spend millions of dollars to develop LNG infrastructure here, we need to first have a clear road map on how we’re going to maximize renewable energy in Hawaii. If LNG is a bridge to renewable energy, lets have a clear idea of what that bridge looks like. We can have a 100-percent clean energy future that benefits all of us, and we need to start planning towards that.

7. Hawaii’s public records law mandates that public records be made available whenever possible. Yet many citizens are unable to afford the costs that state and local government agencies impose. Would you support eliminating search and redaction charges and making records free to the public except for basic copying costs? 

Government works best when its citizens know how and why decisions are being made. I’m firmly committed to ensuring that our government here in Hawaii is transparent and accountable. I recognize the burdens that can be placed on agencies to respond to numerous requests, but ensuring records are accessible to citizens is a core tenant of a democratic government. I would get behind making records accessible to the public at a nominal cost; this could include an ombudsman entity (like the Office of Information Practices) to ensure that abuse isn’t taking place. I also believe we can take greater advantage of online records by making them instantly and immediately available to all.

8. Are you satisfied with the way Hawaii’s public school system is run? How can it be run better?

As a proud graduate of Hawaii’s public school system (Kalaheo High School and the University of Hawaii), I’ve seen both the positives and negatives of our school system. In meeting with educational leaders, it’s plain to see that each school system should be given greater autonomy and flexibility to experiment with new learning innovations and given the resources to raise children in a 21st century educational system. At a fairly minimal cost, we can take greater advantage of off-campus learning and incorporate new technologies into the school system.

But it’s inescapable that we need to also make a commitment to appropriately funding our teachers. Teachers should be publicly recognized and compensated well enough so that teaching once again becomes a profession that attracts the best and brightest. This is no less than what our kids deserve. And our gifted teachers should have access to the resources they need to focus on teaching, rather then using outdated textbooks and unsafe equipment.

As noted above, Hawaii spends a ridiculous amount on things like our schools’ monthly electric bills. We can help reduce these costs by taking advantage of renewable energy, and then reallocate this funding backing into the educational system to do things like appropriately fund teachers.

Regarding our higher education system, the University of Hawaii should be at the forefront of innovation. Oregon recently passed a “pay it forward” program that allows students to attend for free if they commit to paying 3 percent of their salary following graduation. This is just an example of an innovative idea that I’d like to see from the University of Hawaii. It’s this kind of out of the box, solutions-oriented thinking that we need if we want our kids to attend college, and learn the skills they need for higher paying jobs in the future. Our university system is under tremendous pressure to service more students, compete for more research funding, and survive the challenge of competing with online higher education school classes. In order to compete and continue being a world-class university system that grows Hawaii’s future leaders, we must innovate.

9. There is a desire to grow the economy through new development yet also a need to protect our limited environmental resources. How would you balance these competing interests? 

I reject the false choice between protecting our environment and growing our economy. We can achieve both. As an example, over the past five years the solar industry has grown into the leading contributor of jobs in Hawaii. Today, over 25 percent of our construction jobs are in the solar industry. This is a win, win, win: it creates good jobs, helps people save money on their electricity bill, and helps wean Hawaii off imported fossil fuels.

I’d challenge anyone who says that the economy can only grow at the expense of the environment and vice versa. Let’s build the green jobs that workers can be proud to be associated with. Let’s protect the precious natural and cultural resources that make Hawaii, Hawaii, and ensure that they are available for our keiki to enjoy and see.

10. What other important issue would you like to discuss here?

Elections are about picking someone who you believe will hold true to community values and principles. My record is clear. I have proved my ability to work with diverse communities with varying interests to help achieve real, constructive solutions. I can hit the ground running, and start on Hawaii’s most pressing issues from day one. I believe it’s time to elect leaders who are willing to tackle complex problems, rather than simply kicking the can down the road. I’ve had the amazing opportunity to help “keep the country, country” by protecting Turtle Bay from unnecessary development. I’ve helped put in place policies that have helped grow solar industry into what it is today. I would be honored to use my experience and ability to build relationships to help represent my community.