Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 8 general election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.
The following came from Laura Thielen, a Democratic candidate for the state Senate, District 25, which includes Kailua, Lanikai, Enchanted Lake, Keolu Hills, Maunawili, Waimanalo, Hawaii Kai and Portlock. There is one other candidate, Republican Robert Nagamine.
Name: Laura H. Thielen
Office seeking: State Senate, District 25
Occupation: Senator; co-owner, Lilinoe Orchard
Community organizations/prior offices held: President, Hawaii Women Lawyers; chairperson, U.S. Department of Education Pacific Regional Advisory Committee; board member, Hawaii Board of Education; board member, Hawaii Women’s Legal Foundation; UH Master Gardener, volunteer; board member, Kailua Neighborhood Board; chairperson, Aikahi Elementary Fun Fair
Age as of Aug. 13, 2016: 55
Place of residence: Waimanalo
Campaign website: www.laurathielen.com
1. This year has seen an outsized influence from people who want big changes in how government is run. What would you do to change how the Legislature is run?
As the only island state, we need to be on the forefront in using technology so people from all islands can access hearings and testify before us. Only one committee room in the Capitol is equipped to allow interactive video with neighbor islands. We should be making this kind of interactive, statewide hearing system the norm, not the exception.
We also need to follow processes that allow regular residents – not just professional lobbyists – to follow bills as they move through the legislature. We should be strictly limiting gut and replace practices; increasing notice requirements and posting testimony, proposed amendments and actual amendments online more quickly so people can see what is being voted on and have a meaningful opportunity to weigh in before we take votes.
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizen’s initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Yes, with specific standards.
I co-authored a Senate bill last year to allow for limited initiative. I support a high bar before any proposal can be placed on the ballot, to assure that there is some broad-based support for the idea, and that the proposal is constitutional. Also, I would limit initiative to proposing laws, but not support referendums that would change the state constitution.
3. Hawaii has long been dominated by the Democratic Party establishment. Should this change, and if so, how?
There are definite benefits to having two or more viable political parties. However, that will not happen in Hawaii until one or more other party offers a platform, ideas and credible candidates who appeal to a majority of voters in a variety of districts across the state, and not just a few isolated areas.
4. What specific steps would you take to strengthen Hawaii’s lax lobbying, ethics and financial disclosure laws?
Require more timely ethics and financial disclosures during legislative sessions, so people know who is donating to us as we are in the midst of voting on laws and budgets.
Require legislators, the governor, mayors, chiefs of staff/managing directors and cabinet officials to disclose sources of income, instead of the current broad categories, so people know if businesses who employ us or contract with us are getting favored treatment by government officials;
Require lobbyists to disclose donations and gifts to executive branch personnel at the state and city/county level, so people know if businesses are getting favored treatment in contracts, permit approvals or other executive branch decisions.
Require the ethics and campaign spending commissions to consolidate and cross-reference filings, so people can see total amounts donated by lobbyists and total amounts received by public officials over periods of time.
5. Would you support eliminating Hawaii’s high fees for access to public records when the request is in the public interest?
I support strengthening public disclosure laws, including a presumption that government records are public. I support putting most public records online so that people don’t have to request them from agencies, and staff don’t have to spend time pulling paper and making copies.
I also support a cap on fees for access to records, provided that there is a limit on the number of records requested – because there is a cost to staff time responding to excessive requests. However, I wouldn’t allow fees for public records that are supposed to be online but aren’t (like the adult care home inspection reports).
6. Voters complain their elected officials don’t listen to them. What would you do to improve communication?
It is frustrating to see bills move forward when 90 percent of the testimony is in opposition, or bills die when 90 percent of the testimony is in support. While this isn’t common, it does happen.
That said, sometimes legislators are accused of not listening, when they have listened, but don’t agree. There can be a difference of opinion even when people listen to each other.
If voters feel that their legislator is not listening to them, they do have a solution every two or four years. It’s called “elections.”
More people should be willing to challenge an incumbent by stepping up to run for the office if they are not satisfied with their legislator, or to vote against them when there is a challenger.
Democracy isn’t easy, and the fight over the ideas on how to govern is never “won” or “finished.” It is a constant and perpetual debate. And you can’t affect the decisions if you don’t participate over time.
Stepping up to run for office, or supporting someone new is a good way to change the debate and get people to listen. Competition makes politicians more responsive and accountable. Voter apathy leads to a less responsive political system.
7. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Cost of housing; homelessness; tourism encroaching on residents’ quality of life.
Waimanalo, Lanikai and Kailua are advertised as the world’s best beaches. We are a world-renowned destination, swamped by thousands of daily vacationers looking for short-term rentals and offshore investors looking for a second home. Property values have skyrocketed, leaving kupuna struggling with taxes, locals moving out of the community, putting pressure on Oahu housing prices elsewhere.
Hawaii’s economy is mostly lower-paying service jobs, leaving many residents working multiple jobs, living paycheck to paycheck. Visible homelessness and hidden homelessness (doubling or tripling up) abound.
State programs are scattered across different agencies without a coordinated workforce and affordable housing agenda.
We need to drive state and city programs to prioritize housing for local families; support innovative development like micro-units in areas close to jobs and services for young adults and kupuna; and “Housing First” to get homeless off the streets where they are a health hazard to themselves and the public.
The Hawaii Tourism Authority should be required to manage the tourism industry to ensure businesses are complying with restrictions that protect residents’ quality of life, like not commercializing beach parks, to keep these places of respite for our families.
8. 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?
Many developers claim development at any price as good for Hawaii’s economy. That may be true in the short-term, but it’s certainly not true in the long-term.
The economic gains from building luxury condominiums or sprawling “agricultural subdivisions” for offshore investors (temporary construction jobs) does not give a meaningful long-term economic benefit to Hawaii (no new housing for locals; opportunity cost of millions of public dollars spent on infrastructure; drives up property taxes for surrounding residences; absentee owners don’t contribute to economy).
We need development that sets the foundation for Hawaii’s long-term economic growth: Reliable infrastructure; adequate commercial and industrial spaces; and, affordable and workforce housing for our residents — the human resources essential for long-term economic growth.
We need compact development next to urban services at affordable prices that are starter residences for young adults, and retirees looking to downsize, who then free up single family homes for families.
If residents didn’t have to pay 40 percent to 60 percent of their income for housing, or spend three hours commuting each way every day for work, we could have a lot more diversified economic growth that doesn’t come at the expense of our agricultural lands and natural resources.
9. What should the Legislature do to improve police accountability?
Departmental policies should be public, so that the public is aware of standard procedures and conduct (this is done in other jurisdictions).
We should hold police officers to the same accountability standards as all other public employees (currently they have a special exemption in Hawaii). Public information regarding disciplinary actions once they are final will help increase compliance with departmental policies and procedures.
We should adopt a statewide Police Standards Board, like the vast majority of other states.
We should have a statewide database managed by the attorney general where departments can screen potential hires to determine if they were terminated by other law enforcement agencies within the state.
None of these bills passed the Legislature last year, or the prior year. We were successful in passing a couple smaller measures, such as posting the domestic violence policies and creating a board to overview cases of death or serious injury. We need to keep the pressure on the Legislature to adopt more meaningful accountability and transparency laws.
10. Hawaii is the fastest-aging state. What would you do to ensure we’re taking care of our kupuna?
We made good progress in kupuna care recently. We’ve supported many programs through the Kupuna Caucus, including fall prevention, protection against physical and financial abuse, and requiring care home inspection reports to be posted online so families can locate safe care for their loved ones.
We also passed the CARE Act, which requires hospitals to give care instructions to caregivers and not just the patient upon release from a hospital or emergency room.
That said, we know that demand for kupuna services will be increasing as the baby-boomer generation ages. Most families care for kupuna in their homes. This means many families will be entering the caregiving experience without being familiar with what to do or what help they can access. Therefore, we must increase support for our elder care ombudsman office so they can provide outreach materials and information for families.
Many kupuna will also require professional care, often outside of the home. Much of this care is provided in scattered care homes across the state. Our regulatory oversight and support of these homes is critical to assure kupuna are well cared for and the home operators are trained in and familiar with standards of care.
11. What would you do to improve Hawaii’s public education system?
I am a strong supporter of statewide funding of K-12 education and statewide educational standards or goals, to provide equitable opportunity for all of Hawaii’s keiki and to promote increased student academic achievement.
However, I’m an equally strong believer that the means to increase our student achievement will vary, depending on the student body, local community, and strengths of the school personnel.
We need to stop paying lip service to schools, and actually give meaningful authority to school-level budgeting and curriculum decision making.
The centralized Department of Education administration has fought this idea for decades, and retains a firm grip on control. Recently it ordered schools to spend school-based budget funds on a centrally-picked curriculum.
“To Kill a Mockingbird” is a coming of age story that resonates with kids at Aikahi Elementary, where my daughters went to school. But “Molokai” is a far more compelling coming of age story for families at Blanche Pope Elementary in Waimanalo Homestead. Both are equally challenging and set high standards for reading comprehension, vocabulary and critical thinking. Limiting schools from finding the best curriculum for their students is senseless and self-defeating.
We need to decentralize the DOE in a way that the Honolulu administration cannot undermine.