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 Zuri Aki, one of four Democratic candidates for the state House of Representatives District 36, which covers Mililani and Mililani Mauka. The others are Trish La Chica, Marilyn Lee and Dean Hazama.
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?
Absolutely. Legislators are elected to represent the people. Perhaps more often than not, those legislators must make decisions on behalf of Hawaii residents — affect others beyond just their constituents. I strongly believe that it is the responsibility of our elected officials to keep all residents of our state well-informed as to the decisions they make and the role they have played. Legislators work for the people and there should be a high degree of accountability and transparency involved in that work.
My original answer to the following questions concerning reform and culture change ended up being way too long, but I realized a pattern in my answers, so please allow me to be succinct.
All of these issues could be better served by amplifying conversations on them, which could very well create an urgency behind solution-oriented decision-making. With regard to sexual harassment policy reform, legislators need to prop up organizations and individuals who lead the charge on the issue. Maintaining these conversations at the forefront keep them visible — there’s a tendency to “forget” problems when they are relegated to the proverbial back-burner. The more we bring up these issues and educate on them, the more effective our solutions.
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Absolutely. Power to the people was what democracy is all about. There’s this feeling of malaise when it comes to politics and it largely stems from what a great many people see as a generally unresponsive government (local, state and federal). There’s a reason we have an abysmal voter turnout and the crux of the issue is that civic engagement hasn’t lured the masses in with promises of beneficial change. That’s a shame, because we need to know that government works for us.
You know, I’m running as a candidate for state office knowing full well that our legislators are being lobbied by special interest groups — and that can be a good or bad thing depending on your social-political-economic outlook. Sometimes these interests can stifle beneficial movement and the people are well aware of that. In those times, it may very well be necessary for the people to step forward, take charge of the decision-making authority, and effect change for their betterment.
We trust that our legislators have the wherewithal to make the best choices on our behalf. When it works, it’s great. Sometimes, however, the people need the opportunity to step in. We should have that opportunity.
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?
I think a great many residents realize that while Hawaii is single-party-dominant, the Democratic Party is also very diverse. There are social democrats on the far left and we have some very conservative (and even former Republican members) on the far right. In certain light, it wouldn’t be a stretch to see Hawaii as a purple state. So, our representation of certain ideals is probably a lot broader than other blue states. However, it may not be encompassing enough.
I am a Democrat and I recognize that our residents who have aligned themselves with other political platforms (Republican, Libertarian, Green, Aloha ‘Āina, Independent, etc.) are marginalized, but their values/concerns are important and we’re better off as a society with great ideas/perspectives coming from across a much wider spectrum of thought. I don’t ever intend to disregard the concerns of a resident because they’re coming from a different party. We need to have discussions and we need to involve every member of the community.
Diversity and diversity in knowledge is a treasure. There’s a saying here, ‘A’ohe pau ka ‘ike i ka halau ho’okahi (not all knowledge is contained within a single school). We need more open communication.
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 come from a district, where money can make or break a campaign. Money allows you to become more visible and to ensure that your background and platform are seen by voters. It’s an advantage and every candidate wants an advantage.
As most of us probably know, special interest groups and individuals (could be a good thing or bad) will contribute to a candidate that they deem viable and it often creates an “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” relationship. In a potentially big way, it can compromise decision-making especially when the community is at odds with that special interest backer. Voters should know before they vote.
I strongly believe that reporting should be done monthly for state Legislature seats and maybe bi-monthly for the bigger races. I require my treasurer to inform me immediately after a contribution is made and I ask for a report every two weeks. I have a small team and the upkeep isn’t demanding, so I know a monthly report shouldn’t burden candidates. In keeping transparent, candidates can also post their contributions publicly at any given time. I’ll be making mine available prior to my July filing deadline.
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?
I have some familiarity with this issue as the nature of my job — public policy advocate — requires me to occasionally put in requests from various state agencies. There are certainly delays and fees associated with acquiring this information, however, I must emphasize that I do not believe them to be intentionally stifling or designed in such a way to impede the acquisition of information.
I strongly believe that in this day and age that data storage and collection should allow for greater accessibility and systems should be in place (if they are not already) to digitize records and to develop an online database (and even apps) to easily search for these documents.
I believe part of the delay comes as a result of prior antiquated filing systems, where full-on expeditions need to be launched in order to rediscover hard copy documents. Or maybe they’re lost in a sea of directories in a hard to access digital database. Whatever the reasons, I think the state could better organize filing systems in order to negate search costs completely. Better funding for equipment (servers, software, etc.) and dedicated personnel is something legislators can account for in increasing accessibility to public documents.
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 am not satisfied! Finding effective means for the state to pay the debt owed (and will be owed) to public workers is a primary platform issue of mine and it adds to the major impetus behind my position to find significant economic stimuli. This state needs additional sources of revenue.
Let me be absolutely clear — this state is having a hard time finding the funding to meet past demands and the debt owed is increasing. From funding transportation infrastructure (like rail) and building for climate change resilience to unfunded liabilities, the present and future outlook sounds like legislators will eventually be considering tax hikes — and that’s already unacceptable as the second-highest taxed state in the nation.
The state of Hawaii needs to find long-term viable economic stimuli and it starts with controlling global market risk. This state has too many outside hands taking out and not enough putting anything back in. We need to build our own economic sectors, rather than let outside interests dictate our economic priorities. We need to consider the tech and fin-tech sector and the dominant global role we can play and we need to seriously consider the benefits of gaming/gambling.
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?
If this was the only option, yes. Hear me out because a simple “yes/no” can’t possibly suffice. Public schools need funding. Investment properties play a critical role in housing inventory shortage, which is a component of the present housing crisis, and a major component in Hawaii’s insanely high cost of living. But, we can address the housing crisis, adequately fund public schools, and refrain from additional taxation.
Here’s one solution. I have been a longtime advocate for challenging the Privileges and Immunities Clause (and other relevant parts) of the U.S. Constitution. This particular clause prohibits states from basically advantaging local long-term residents over out-of-state residents. We’re severely cost-burdened in Hawaii and that impacts our savings. Someone from out-of-state, who isn’t as cost-burdened can save more and when it comes to buying a house here, they have the down payment in savings. We’re being disadvantaged here. It’s time to even the playing field and that requires a challenge to the constitution. Other states have done it, we should too.
Investment property taxation needs to be implemented in a way that state legislators do not forget the need to dedicate more direct funding to our public education system.
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?
The main problem with illegal vacation rentals — or nonowner-occupied rentals — is that they take up valuable finite housing inventory for a purely profiteering purpose. This is a big problem that plays a significant role in the housing crisis and the affordability crisis (high cost of living). And you know what? That high cost of living results in locals being forced to move away and the loss of our brilliance (and younger generations) to economies elsewhere (“the brain drain”). All of these problems impact our overall quality of life.
I go into detail on my website with my plans to address these issues. In summary, we need to ensure that local residents can effectively compete against global market forces and that’s going to require us to find ways to increase local buying power (more money in locals’ pockets), allow locals to have substantive savings, and even the playing field when it comes to purchasing in Hawaii. We need to challenge barriers in the U.S. Constitution (see my answer to the previous question) that are disadvantaging us, while also establishing additional sources of income — significant sources of income. Check out my website, I answer this in detail.
9. Do you support or oppose holding a state constitutional convention? Why or why not?
If I were to be elected, I would support it, if that’s what the people want. I do not think a constitutional convention is presently necessary, as the current constitution’s framework is adequate enough to guide favorable legislation. I believe we can solve our many problems without having to amend the constitution.
My main concern, as of writing this, is the possibility that current rights and protections, provided by the constitution, could be abrogated. The Constitution of the State of Hawaii has provisions like Article XI Section 1, calling for the preservation and protection of the natural environment for future generations; Article XII Section 7, identifying the preservation and protection of Native Hawaiian traditional and customary practices — Native Hawaiian rights; and so much more.
Our constitution can be updated to take into consideration the impacts of climate change, the housing crisis, and the high cost-burden on residents. This would be advantageous, if written well. Conversely, our present rights and entitlements to a safe clean environment — among other things — could be stripped. The outcome could go either way. So, if a con con happens, I’ll definitely be advocating for better and more innovative provisions.
10. What should Hawaii be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
I am very thankful for this question. My studies at law school were focused in significant part on International Environmental Law and Climate Change. I consider climate change one of my areas of expertise and I strongly believe that the State of Hawaii has some major gearing-up to do in order to prepare itself for the most unprecedented effects of climate change.
I go into detail on my website with necessary steps to prepare for climate change. First, Hawaii needs to establish additional sources of revenue. Hawaii is going to need a whole lot more money to prepare. The state’s and county’s shortfalls with regard to funding the rail project just goes to show that it is ill-equipped to fund the necessary infrastructure improvement/rehabilitation/resilience that is necessary. If an additional long-term viable source of revenue isn’t established, then when visible crisis lands, the state will either look for federal aid or look to raising taxes on residents.
Second, Hawaii needs to start building for resilience. Sea level rise means a negative impact on our transportation, energy, and water infrastructure. It’s going to cost billions to relocate this infrastructure away from impacted coastal areas. Further details are on my webpage.
11. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Traffic and the lack of economic opportunities. Traffic is essentially the loss of opportunity. Commuters from Mililani will average roughly two hours a weekday sitting in traffic. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years. That’s over 400 days of just sitting in traffic. What would you do with 400 days? This is 400 days that could have been spent with family and friends; learning new skills; traveling the world; enjoying life. This is a serious disadvantage.
The lack of economic opportunities in Central Oahu means that Mililani commuters primarily drive to Honolulu for work. If we had more jobs in Central Oahu, we could very well have more time with our families. We’d save a lot more more on transportation (for me that’s nearly $4,000/year) and we could use that money for everything else we might need it for.
I have plans for bringing economic opportunities to Central Oahu and I have been working on these plans long before running for office. I can’t say that I’ll bring every job from Honolulu to Central Oahu, but I can bring new high-paying jobs to the area and work with our educational system to prime our future generations for those jobs.