Another legislative session, another democratic failure. Unfortunately, the leadership coups by Hawaii Democrats and Republicans were the most successful actions by the Legislature this year.

Our state is still in crisis.

Shamefully, we have the highest rates of homelessness in the country. Our public parks and beaches are littered with makeshift tents, occupied by entire families who cannot afford proper housing.

Costs of living continue to rise. Between 2005 and 2013, rents rose 70 percent and consumer prices rose 28 percent. In that time, wages only rose 22 percent.

Our public school teachers remain overworked and underpaid. We have some of the highest rates of teacher attrition in the country, and each year schools struggle to fill positions with qualified candidates.

A pension crisis looms. The Employee Retirement System reported a $12.4 billion shortfall in 2017, up from $8.6 billion in 2014. Meanwhile, state investments continue to underperform relative to market indices and comparable funds.

Capitol low winds downtown Honolulu reflections. 27 april 2017
The Legislature is failing to solve the state’s pressing problems. Now the public should step in and call for a constitutional convention. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Our economy has hit a dead-end. Tourism growth is stagnant. The military may reduce troop levels. No new industry promises growth. Many low wage workers are stuck without benefits or the opportunity to improve their position.

Residents, especially our best and brightest young people, continue to leave Hawaii because there is no economic opportunity for them here.

The rail, our most ambitious public works project, is not yet built. Total costs are expected to double the early estimates of $5 billion. All we have produced is bitter debate about where to cut our losses and end the ugly ordeal (Middle Street or Ala Moana?).

All this ignores climate change, sea level rise, extreme weather events, and our absolute dependence on imports for food.

For good reason, people have lost faith in our government’s ability to solve problems. That is why we have the lowest voter participation rates in the country. Revealingly, many elected offices go uncontested because young people have no desire to participate in a failing system.

In that system, the Legislature chooses to live out their House of Cards fantasies rather than enact policy. Legislators leave ethical concerns at the door, and petty squabbles distract from the enormity of the issues facing our state. Despite Democrats controlling the legislative, executive, and judicial branches of government, no unified will is found to address these critical issues.


The problem is not just the current political class. The problem is the political system itself.

At the next election, voters have the option to call a state constitutional convention. We should do so.

In 1976, Hawaii voters agreed with the nation that government should be held accountable to the people. This was the era that saw Nixon resign to avoid impeachment during the Watergate scandal. Once again, our political system is corrupt at the highest levels. The people demand action.

The 1978 Constitutional Convention was a watershed political event for our state. It placed term limits on state officials, required an annual balanced budget, recognized Hawaiian as an official state language, and established the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

More importantly, the Convention enlisted everyday people to take charge of their government and openly debate the big issues Hawaii then faced. It codified those solutions in our fundamental laws.

Our current constitution is nearly 40 years old. It was written before the personal computer, the internet, the smartphone. It was written before climate change was common knowledge. It could not have predicted the issues our state faces today, and it restricts our ability to respond.

The political class has failed us. But there is hope. As our Constitution reminds us: “All political power of this State is inherent in the people and the responsibility for the exercise thereof rests with the people.”

That means more than voting for the right candidate or lobbying the right legislator. It means taking our destiny into our own hands and refashioning a political system equal to the challenge before us.

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About the Author

  • Sterling Higa
    Sterling was raised in Nuuanu. He graduated from Roosevelt High School and later earned a master’s degree in education from Harvard University. Sterling now works as a debate coach and lecturer at Hawaii Pacific University. By candlelight, he is finishing his Ph.D. in education at the University of Hawaii Manoa. The author's opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Civil Beat.