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Chad Blair: Aloha everybody and welcome to another installment of the Pod Squad, as always Chad Blair with Honolulu Civil Beat. And joining me today is Sen. Laura Thielen and Sen. Russell Ruderman. Hello senators.
Russell Ruderman: Good morning.
Laura Thielen: Good afternoon.
Blair: Thank you for being with us on the Pod Squad.
The topic today is legislation that the two of you are pushing, regarding initiatives and in-term limits for law makers. Could you just quickly summarize the key points of your legislation. We’ll start with Sen. Thielen.
Thielen: OK, I’ll take initiative and you can take term limits?
Thielen: We’re proposing some form of direct democracy, where people can have a say in a law that’s passed. Not amending the constitution, we’re going to start slow. It’s been 40 years since people have had a say in any laws and there’s been some chronic problems that the Legislature hasn’t addressed. Things like, identifying important agriculture lands, affordable housing for Hawaii residents as opposed to international investors. And so we want to give people an opportunity to put a question on the ballot – but to have safeguards to make sure that these are questions that are supported by a large proportion of people, that they’re legal, they’re not going to address the budget, they’re not going to address individual companies or organizations — but valid questions that people have a right to vote on.
Blair: OK. Sen. Ruderman…
Thielen: In regarding term limits, we’re proposing again a fairly modest term limit bill. What we saw when we went to a legislative conference of all western states, is that many states have term limits. A lot of times they were inactive by initiatives. Most states that have term limits have an 8 year term limit. We’re proposing 12 years term limits for House, 12 years for Senate. We have established term limits on almost every other level of government – our county mayors, our governor, our county councils and as well as all boards and commissions, but the State Legislature is really the exception. And we think that having term limits will result in legislators that are more responsive to their communities. They’ll be more opportunities for change over. You’d have people who have other careers in life. They come in to take a turn at legislators instead of being life long politicians.
Blair: OK. Now just the two of you – you’re names are on this bill, you don’t have any other sponsors. In the past I’ve seen initiative, as well as referendum, and recall and term limits, coming primarily from republicans. I think Sen. Sam Slom, the republican minority leader, the only republican in the chamber actually, has pushed it before. My fundamental question is, are you going to be able to get support from colleagues for this legislation?
Thielen: We’re working on having the conversation with our colleagues, but what’s more important, we’re also working on having the conversation with the broader public. The Legislature clearly supports term limits for others. It’s going to take public push and discussion with the legislators about why should we support it for ourselves as well. And as Sen. Ruderman was saying, that answer is we need more participation.
We have one of the lowest voter turnouts in the nation, but we also have a huge number of elections that are uncontested. And part of the culture in Hawaii is, you don’t go up and challenge somebody. But when there’s an open seat, a lot of people will step forward. And so we think that we should have that opportunity regularly to get more people involved in making decisions in our democracy.
Ruderman: That’s exactly it. I mean, we do have a very low voter participation. We have a lot of people who feel hopeless about their government – they can’t affect any change or have an effect on what we do. This is all an effort. We do have one co-sponsor in each of these bills. But we didn’t really try. We wanted to put this in there for discussion purposes and we wanted to get the public involved. The only way this will happen is if there’s quite a bit of demand for it.
Blair: You know, we actually put the question to Governor Ige a couple months ago, “would you accept initiative,” and he said “no”. He feels that, in fact, there were unintended consequences. And I wonder if you thought about that – the things that can go wrong when citizens take a direct role in democracy.
Ruderman: Well there have been cases where things may have gone wrong in some states, and we took lessons from those states. We’re trying to include in the discussion all those safeguards against such things. We can, for example, the Legislature can undo any laws passed by initiative with a supermajority after five years. Now the attorney general has to verify that it’s a legal question. As we have it now, it does not address strictly budgetary issues, it doesn’t address any individual or individual company, and the 10 percent threshold and no paid signature gatherers – those are all safeguards. In the states that have plenty of safeguards, there’s been fewer of those disastrous consequences.
Thielen: And I guess I’d also like to point out, there’s an awful lot that can go wrong in the absence of direct democracy. So, if the Legislature refuses to act in the face of popular will, there’s nothing anybody can do without some type of initiative process.
And the best example I can give on that is that, 40 years ago at our last Con-Con, people overwhelmingly supported the identification of important agricultural lands so that we could keep agriculture in the future for Hawaii. And since then, the Legislature has not done it. In 2005 we passed the buck to the counties. So now we can blame them for not doing it. But it’s our responsibility. And in the mean time, we continue to subdivide agricultural land, we continue to CPR agricultural land, we continue to urbanize agricultural land – and nobody can do anything about it.
Blair: My final question for you, and anything else you want to add, nationally we’re seeing Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders really shake up the presidential election – “people from the outside” – even though Sanders has been in politics for a very long time. Even locally here at home, we threw out a sitting governor two years ago by an overwhelming majority. And you saw a lot of your colleges in Legislature, long time incumbents, a handful of them lose their seats as well. Is there a mood that you think is building that might help facilitate term limits, the growth for your initiative here?
Ruderman: Well certainly there is. Through out the country there’s a dissatisfaction with the responsiveness of our government. I think a lot of it has to do with too much corporate money influence in government. People want to reclaim our democracy. Our democracy is a wonderful thing that was given to us, but it’s been corrupted. It doesn’t work the way it was intended and it doesn’t work for the people. I think that people are calling for reforms and a more responsive government.
Blair: OK, Sen. Thielen a last word?
Blair: Ditto. Good, that’s exactly one word.
Remember to subscribe to us on iTunes and Stitcher, visit our site at civilbeat.com, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter. Sen. Laura Thielen, Sen. Russell Ruderman, thank you for joining the Pod Squad today.
Ruderman: Thank you.
Thielen: A pleasure.
Blair: And as always, Chad Blair with Honolulu Civil Beat, take care and aloha.