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 Benton Rodden, a Democratic candidate for the state House of Representatives in District 23, which covers Manoa, Punahou, University and Moiliili. There are four other Democratic candidates, Dylan Armstrong, Elton Fukumoto, Andrew Garrett 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?
The Legislature absolutely needs to be more transparent and accountable. When it comes to issues like sexual harassment, there is no excuse for failing to take immediate action to prevent abuse from taking place, period. I believe that, fundamentally, legislators work for the people and must be accountable to the people who elected them. This is a bedrock principle of democracy. It may be difficult to go against leadership when the power dynamic is so heavily slanted toward the “good ol’ boy” network of political elites, but if we shy away from doing what is right, simply because it is hard, then we have already lost.
There is, of course, a wrong and a right way to go about making change. I believe most legislators have good intentions. I advocate for doing the hard work of having honest conversations at the Capitol with legislative colleagues and convincing them that we all gain far more from being open and honest with the public than we do by wheeling and dealing behind closed doors. I am an organizer, and so I know that the best way to convince legislators is to approach them from a position of power to even the dynamic out. The only power that really matters to me is that of the people. We need to leverage our community’s concern over transparency in order to change that culture.
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I support having a statewide citizen’s initiative so long as there are ethical safeguards and constitutional checks and balances. Citizen’s initiatives have often been hijacked by monied interests who can spend unlimited sums misleading voters. They have also been used to take away the rights of others, such as California’s Proposition 8. These are significant problems that would need to be addressed before I would ever consider voting to authorize such a process.
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?
The more concerning part of this question for me — besides Democrats and Republicans — is ensuring an honest and open exchange of ideas can take place. To do this, we need to encourage more young people, more women, and more minority groups to run for office and, generally, diversify our legislature. This would be true regardless of how many Ds and Rs are present and will only happen when community members step up to both run for office and also organize their communities to participate in the democratic process.
Leadership can certainly be heavy-handed in its approach in the legislature, and, as a result, representatives whose views and policies don’t align with the leadership are often reluctant to speak out due to fear of future isolation and political repercussions. This type of political culture is a huge problem, and not unique to Hawaii; we solve this problem by mobilizing voters and offering candidates who think differently and are willing to challenge the status quo. Once that happens, the existing power dynamics and political culture can be changed, but it will be very unlikely otherwise.
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?
I support increasing the frequency of campaign finance reporting. I think the best way to fix the problem of money in politics is to implement publicly-financed elections. Publicly financed elections will even out the playing field while making the campaign finances of every candidate completely transparent.
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?
Legislatively, measures could be passed to do away with fees and make it easier to argue a case for the public good when requesting records. I think that we also need to ensure that the offices responsible for producing these records are fully staffed. Journalists are a critical component of a healthy democracy, and they should not have to pay fees to the government in order to do their job and serve the public.
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?
I refuse to cut these benefits for workers who have given their lives to build our society. We stand on their shoulders and the foundations they built for us. Revenue can be increased by more equitably structuring our tax system so that the very wealthy, corporations, visitors to these islands and special interests pay a fair share of the burden. It can also be increased through entirely new revenue sources that are readily available to us, requiring only our political courage to activate them.
This includes legalizing adult-use cannabis, which will cut down on crime and create a new tax source, while also allowing for honest public awareness campaigns about the health risks of smoking, as well as charging fair rates to companies that profit from the use of our natural resources, like wind, water, sunlight, land and the ocean. Lastly, we need to shift our fiscal priorities to ensure that we are living up to the commitment we made our kupuna.
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. Public schools are the pillars of our communities and the state of our education system is a reflection of the future we plan to leave the next generation. Currently, our schools are in dire straits. We saw an 84 percent increase in teachers leaving the islands for the mainland. This is because they do not get paid enough to live here and do not have the resources they need to do one of the most important jobs in our society. Our keiki deserve better than this.
I would make sure that this policy is implemented in a way that does not adversely impact the working and middle classes of Hawaii by keeping the cutoff for taxable properties at $1 million or higher and focusing on second-homes and other investment properties. This will have a greater impact on investors living outside our communities while profiting off of them while sparing typical local families from shouldering additional financial burdens.
I would also exempt units that are being rented out on long-term leases at or below the median rent which should also help to lower the number of homes used as illegal vacation rentals. This is about restoring balance and equity while investing in our future.
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?
This is a huge problem. As described above, we need to make sure that visitors and investors are paying a fair share to support the longevity and sustainability of life in these islands. Illegal vacation rentals are harmful in several ways; they degrade the character of our communities. They take business away from regulated accommodations that provide good-paying jobs. They suck up a significant amount of our housing inventory which drives up rent.
While the tax revenue may sound tempting, there is plenty of research that shows the cost of addressing the problems caused by illegal vacation rentals far exceeds the tax revenue collected. We should enforce the law. Legal vacation rentals that fall within tourism districts should be paying their fair share of taxes.
9. Do you support or oppose holding a state constitutional convention? Why or why not?
I think a constitutional convention has the potential to revive our democracy and set us on a new trajectory if it’s done right. I am a researcher in the area of governance design, and many of my colleagues have consulted those who were engaged in writing their governing documents. If we want to do it well and we want it to truly be democratic, then there is a great deal of organizing and education that is needed. I am willing to sponsor legislation to send field organizers and educators out to work with our communities to prepare for this.
We should approach something of this magnitude with care and thoughtfulness. While I understand and share the frustration with the status quo, a constitutional convention is not something that we should jump into out of reactionary angst – that’s what primaries are for. At this point, I do not believe that we are adequately prepared for a constitutional convention.
10. What should Hawaii be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
We need to immediately form a task force to look at how best to manage shoreline retreat; we need to immediately halt irresponsible development proposals in inundation zones; we need to shut down resort and investment property requests to build seawalls to protect private property at the grave expense of the public good; we need to design and construct buildings in the urban core that can work with changes in climate and rising sea level; we need to invest in sustainable, renewable energy sources and stop investing in fossil fuels, including LNG; we need to invest in small-scale, diversified agriculture and reserve prime ag land for that purpose, not for development of subdivisions or for industrial agriculture that feeds no one; we need to design our communities so that people do not need to drive their cars as much or as far and can access everything they need to live happy, productive lives inside their communities; we need to learn from the indigenous people of Hawaii who used the land and resources to create the technology of the ahupuaa system, allowing them to live sustainably in these islands while easily supporting a large population.
11. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The most pressing issue everywhere is ensuring that future generations can remain or return to the islands. How do we make sure Hawaii stays Hawaii? The problem is complex and will require a number of different strategies to address.
We need truly affordable housing, a quality education system and opportunities for local families to thrive long-term. We need to be developing truly affordable housing, using sustainable architectural designs, within the urban core — calling 140 percent of AMI affordable is not a solution; it’s a confidence game. We need a moratorium on luxury developments that are geared toward investors and the wealthy and incentivize, instead, housing at 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 percent of AMI — where the need is greatest.
We need to invest in our social safety net, expanding low-income tax and food credits and provide services for mental health and substance abuse treatment. We need to invest in family care infrastructure, whether that is paid family leave or a robust kupuna care program that can service our sizable aging population. We need to change the emphasis in education from standardization toward creativity, social entrepreneurship, art, science, discovery, critical thinking, and cooperation: essential skills for success in the 21st century. We need to diversify our economy and renew our commitment to higher education. We need leaders with the courage to act and no more excuses.
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