Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 11 primary, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.
The following came from Andrew Garrett, one of five Democratic candidates for the state House of Representatives in District 23, which covers Manoa, Punahou, University and Moiliili. The others are Benton Rodden, Elton Fukumoto, Dylan Armstrong and Dale Kobayashi.
1. Should the Legislature be more transparent and accountable? What would you do, given how tough it can be for individual lawmakers to go against leadership, to bring about needed reform in areas like sexual harassment policies, lobbyist regulation, fundraising during session and televising and archiving all hearings?
Yes, absolutely. We have high-level concerns about climate change, affordable housing/homelessness, caring for our kupuna and a range of other issues, but solving those larger, systemic problems first requires a solution for the lack of public trust in our legislative process. Looking at this year’s ballot, there are several elected officials who face no challengers in either election, which allows them to once again get a free pass. The right to vote is a cherished hallmark of our democratic system, but I cannot blame voters who choose to stay home when there is a lack of credible candidates.
I would propose a five-term limit for the state House and a three-term limit for the state Senate, to encourage more candidates to run and lessen the power of the incumbency. At the same time, we should explore ways to encourage more qualified candidates to consider a career in public service. We need people from all walks of life to run, not just people who are independently wealthy or attorneys. To help restore faith and trust in the system, we should strengthen our campaign finance laws to ban fundraisers during the legislative session and require monthly reporting of candidate committee expenditures.
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
There are many challenges with initiatives since the potential for it be hijacked by special interests is high. For example, in 2016, California put on the ballot a question that asked if the state should be prohibited from paying more for prescription drugs than the federal Department of Veterans Affairs. Big Pharma raised over $100 million to oppose it, while supporters raised $19 million. Predictably, it was defeated by a 54 to 46 margin.
Thanks to Citizens United, it wouldn’t surprise me to see mainland billionaires attempt to influence such a process here. Voter apathy remains high in our state, and it’s not realistic to expect a majority of voters to get educated about the issues that might be included in such a referendum.
3. Hawaii has the most lopsided Legislature in the country, with no Republicans in the Senate and only five in the House. How would you ensure there is an open exchange of ideas, transparency and accountability for decisions? What do you see as the consequences of one-party control, and how would you address that?
Although I’m a proud Democrat and appreciate all that the party has done for working class families and its unwavering commitment to social justice, I’m not interested in keeping score of how many Democrats and Republicans serve in the Legislature. Whether one considers himself or herself progressive, moderate, or conservative, we need more people in office who are focused on solving the many problems we face as a society.
We have an echo-chamber problem where both parties (especially at the national level) spend most of their time pandering to their base without thinking about the majority of our citizens who consider themselves independent/party-agnostic and want to simply see things get done. In pursuing this seat, I hope to be part of a new wave of like-minded legislators who will be interested in forming a “problem-solvers” caucus, regardless of party affiliation.
4. Would you support more frequent campaign finance reporting during election years, particularly before the primary? What other steps would you take to improve lobbying and financial disclosures?
Yes, the public deserves to know where candidates are receiving their financial support from. It’s unfortunate that money plays such a role in politics (and fundraising has been by far the most unpleasant part of my experience as a first-time candidate), but until we move toward completely publicly funded elections, more reporting is necessary. It doesn’t make sense that only two reports are due between Dec. 31 and July 31, and another right before the primary. I would also tighten lobbying disclosures by mandating that anyone who receives financial compensation to testify on any organization’s behalf be required to register with the state Ethics Commission. The commission should eliminate the five-hour threshold of “direct” lobbying activity for registration.
5. Hawaii’s public records law requires that records be made available whenever possible. Yet state agencies often resist release through delays and imposing excessive fees. What would you do to ensure the public has access to government records?
With all the technological advances we’ve made, there’s no excuse for the public not to have easy access to information. The Office of Information Practices must recognize that it’s their job to serve the public in a transparent manner. If the problem is a lack of personnel or resources, the Legislature should provide funding for additional positions.
6. 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?
Yes, for the time being. The governor and state Legislature have taken positive steps toward addressing the state’s unfunded liabilities by increasing pre-payments drastically over the last few years. However, with only $16 billion of the projected $40 billion obligation currently being covered, difficult decisions will need to be made in future years, since the state is projected to have to double its current annual outlay of $1 billion to $2 billion by 2040. I would look to learn how other states are able to essentially keep their unfunded liabilities at zero, and see what lessons can be applied here.
7. Do you support changing the state constitution to allow taxing investment properties to fund the public schools? How would you implement it if it passes?
Yes. I don’t blame county officials for crying foul for the state assuming taxation authority over real estate since that has been historically their kuleana, but we must get serious about funding public education in our state. This includes exploring new sources of revenue that could be specifically earmarked for education, perhaps from instituting a lottery (which is available in every state except Hawaii and Utah) or permitting sports gaming in our state.
While I support the constitutional amendment on this issue, I’m leery of how the Legislature may react to its passage. I would do my part to ensure that all funds raised by this new mechanism not be offset by corresponding cuts in general fund appropriations for education. These funds should be meant to supplement, not supplant, current levels.
8. Illegal vacation rentals have proliferated throughout Hawaii. The state is not collecting tax revenue on many of these properties and residents worry about overcrowded neighborhoods and other problems. Do you see this as a problem given Hawaii’s booming visitor industry and what would you propose to do about it?
Yes, this is a serious problem that requires immediate attention. A bill must be passed during the 2019 legislative session to capture state and county taxes for TVUs, all the while cracking down on illegal activity in our communities. Vacation rental operators have a legal and social responsibility to ensure they are in compliance with local zoning laws.
To help counties with enforcement efforts, a registration mechanism should be set up to bring this industry out of the shadows and on par with traditional lodging, which pays its fair share of GET and TAT. A provision allowing online platforms to serve as a tax collector should be enacted and will help bring in much needed revenue, much of which could be redirected to addressing the lack of affordable housing and homelessness.
Lack of enforcement of illegal rental activity continues to be a huge problem at the county level, so the state should provide resources and additional pressure to enable them to investigate suspected illegal rentals in a timely manner. We must capture every cent of GET and TAT owed by the operators and online platforms while also dedicating a portion of the revenue to counties to incentivize and enable effective and swift enforcement of zoning laws.
9. Do you support or oppose holding a state constitutional convention? Why or why not?
I’m still uncertain at this point, as it’s unclear how much holding such a con-con would cost the taxpayers. I understand the appeal in bypassing the legislative process since many feel that legislators have a conflict of interest in pursuing things like publicly financed elections or term limits, but I would like more information on how the con con would function.
Would current legislators be barred from serving as delegates in such a setting? How do we ensure that special interests won’t influence the process and put up delegates to serve their narrow agenda? There are a multitude of other questions that remain unanswered.
10. What should Hawaii be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
The United Nations and other organizations have estimated that by the year 2100, sea levels will rise anywhere from 3 to 6 feet due to continued global warming. If that happens, my future grandkids may inherit an oceanfront property from me in Manoa. While we can’t reverse those effects overnight, we must do our part to abide by the Paris accord and take steps to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. We must continue to move toward our 100 percent renewable energy goals and reduce our dependence on fossil fuels to meet our energy needs.
Part of the strategy must also include accelerating the adoption of zero-emission electric vehicles, as carbon dioxide emissions from gas-powered automobiles are a huge part of the problem. Those emissions pose a direct threat to our world’s coral reefs, which literally disintegrate when CO2 levels reach a certain level in the atmosphere. We owe it to the next generation to address this situation with a sense of urgency before it’s too late (although some believe that may already be the case).
11. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The most pressing issue facing the district is the continued aging of our neighbors. Manoa and Moiliili are established communities, and we need to ensure that the kupuna in our community are treated with dignity. The first wave of baby boomers will hit 80 over the next several years, and, as a state, we don’t have a comprehensive plan to take care of them. This will be one of my top priorities. With my experience working in the long-term care field, I have the necessary community relationships to design such a plan.
Our kupuna prefer to stay in their own home for as long as possible, so to respect their wishes, we need to ensure that we develop the appropriate workforce to make that possible. Family caregivers who take care of their parents and loved ones need more support as well. I commend the Legislature for passing the Kupuna Caregivers program, and I would support efforts to provide paid family leave and increase respite care resources to reduce the burden on such family caregivers in the community. We have a tremendous opportunity to make Hawaii a model for turning senior care into an economic engine that creates jobs and keeps families on solid financial footing.