During the primary campaign for governor in 2014, I heard many of my progressive friends criticize then Gov. Neil Abercrombie for not doing enough for income inequality, clean elections, environmental protection, clean energy, and educational reform.

Progressives have now had a legislative session with David Ige as governor and what seemed to be a progressive leadership in most of the committees in the Legislature. Yet I see little joy among progressives now that the session is over.

Speaker Joe Souki address lawmakers during session.  18 feb 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat

The Hawaii Legislature is full of Democrats, but many of them act like Republicans.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Give credit where credit is due. A few victories of this session include the defeat of Carleton Ching for head of the Department of Land and Natural Resources, creation of renewable energy goals, creation of a legal means for medical marijuana dispensaries, a human trafficking law, an end to discrimination against the un-documented for a driver’s license, an office to support an eventual pre-kindergarten education program, and a clarification of instructional hours for public school teachers.

A push from a number of progressive groups including the Democratic Party of Hawaii, Americans for Democratic Action Hawaii, Progressive Democrats of Hawaii, and Hawaii Appleseed Center for Law and Economic Justice was to make our tax structure more progressive.

The Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy report of 2015 notes that Hawaii is the state with the second highest percent of its taxes paid by the bottom fifth as we tax them at a rate of 13.4 percent. The top fifth of our population only pay about 8 percent of their income in taxes. For a “progressive” state we have a very regressive tax structure.

Yet this Legislature let a tax provision on the top rates sunset, effectively lowering our already low top tax rate. A number of bills would have increased the tax credits for people living in poverty to reduce their tax rate.

Yes, we not only tax people in poverty, we tax them at a higher rate than millionaires! The most egregious moral failing of this session has to be making our regressive tax system more regressive. They did almost nothing to alleviate the burden on the poorest fifth of our population.

Perhaps adding insult to this injury to our low-income people, Rep. Justin Woodson of Maui killed a bill in conference to cap the rate of interest for so-called pay-day loans at 36 percent. A number of lenders have been reported to charge over 400 percent.

A number of bills would have “cleaned up” our elections by limiting the influence of campaign contributions. Wealthy lobbyists have more influence on our legislative process than average citizens our even citizen groups.

Yet lawmakers this session killed a bill to provide public funding of elections and killed a bill to force corporations to get shareholder approval before making contributions. The bill to take away the exemption legislators have from some provisions of the ethics laws died.

In 2014 the voters of Maui voted for a ban of all genetically modified organisms growth, testing or cultivation in the county until an environmental and public health study is conducted and finds the proposed cultivation practices to be safe and harmless.

In a progressive state, one might think the Legislature would get the message that they want more regulation of agriculture. Not true for Hawaii in 2015. They did nothing to support regulation of GMOs. The House Agriculture Committee led by Rep. Clift Tsuji even killed a bill to ban the use of pesticides near schools!

While the Legislature did pass (as mentioned earlier) goals for clean energy, it did little to tangibly support clean energy today. They killed a bill to force the public employee retirement system to divest of fossil fuels companies.

While educators are getting a pay increase, they are still underpaid compared to school districts or university cities with a similar cost of living. We are not paying educators, kindergarten through university, in Hawaii the salaries we need to recruit and retain the best people in the field.

Other than this salary increase, bills to fund significant improvements to education failed. The pre-kindergarten bill is progress but slow progress. The Aloha Grant bill to help more Hawaii students afford local college died. Even the bill to fund a small anti-bullying program died for lack of funds. Legislators may speak about their support for quality education, but their budget does not walk that talk.

Colorado, Washington state and Washington, D.C., have legalized marijuana. We have not even passed a decriminalization bill or a bill to allow counties to make the legalization choice.

So the deep blue state of Hawaii is criticized for being too liberal. Yet it seems that on a lot of issues, our supposedly liberal, Democrats are acting like Republicans.

They leave us a state where the poor are overtaxed, wealthy campaign contributors are powerful, the environment is under-protected, education is under-supported, and our criminal justice system is over-bloated. The progressive wave of voters speaking out in the 2014 election has hit the conservative wall called the State Capitol.

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About the Author

  • John Bickel
    John Bickel teaches high school history and American government. He has also taught at Chaminade University and Hawaii Pacific University. He is president of Americans for Democratic Action, Hawaii Chapter and serves on board of Progressive Democrats of Hawaii and the State Central Committee of the Democratic Party.