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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 Jake Schafer, a Democratic candidate for the state House of Representatives in District 42, which covers Kapolei and Makakilo. There is one other Democratic candidate, Sharon Har .
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! A recent study of government integrity gave Hawaii a D+. Our residents deserve better. I think this issue is so important that I have made it a key platform of my campaign by proposing seven specific actions we should take immediately. These actions are bold, simple, and proven to work elsewhere. It includes things like ending the Legislature’s self-exemption from Sunshine Laws and having term limits for all elected officials. You can read all seven actions on my website.
Go against leadership? I think it’s almost always more productive to collaborate with colleagues to get things done. But I am not afraid to go against leadership if needed. For the past decade, I have worked with organizations like Doctors Without Borders to provide emergency relief to survivors of natural disaster and conflict around the globe. I have run complex medical programs on shoestring budgets. I have successfully negotiated with terrorists in exchange for humanitarian access. I have managed complex logistics in actual disaster zones. This unique experience has more in common with Hawaii’s Legislature than you may think!
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Yes, I support it. For those who aren’t aware, a citizens’ initiative forces a public vote on any issue after a certain number of registered voters sign a petition. Hawaii does not currently have a process for doing this.
I think we should join the majority of other blue states and enable our residents to take action in their own hands if government fails to take action on an important issue. I believe the government should work for the people and not the other way around. I will always support efforts that remove barriers to citizen action.
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 am not sure this is a real problem in Hawaii. Yes, we have dominance of one party but only in name. There are strong differences in ideology among the traditional liberal wing and the more progressive wing of the Party. We even have a third wing of conservative lawmakers that would be considered moderate Republicans in any other state. Then there are the independents and the handful of honest Republicans not afraid to run under their own flag. Dissenting ideas are good for democracy and debate of those ideas is alive and well in Hawaii. Think about it – the Legislature would be getting more done faster if there was any type of overwhelming consensus!
That said, we could make a better effort to hear the voices of the under-represented or disenfranchised. Having worked and lived throughout the Hawaiian Islands and greater Pacific neighborhood – including the Philippines, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Indonesia, and China – I have gained a cultural appreciation for our amazingly diverse and inter-connected community. I will also be the only openly LGBT elected official in the Legislature if I am elected. I look forward to representing the diverse voices of many.
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, sorta. We need campaign finance reform. Increasing the frequency of campaign finance reporting is a baby step in the right direction. I hesitate a bit because I like to think big. We ought to move toward general-fund financing for all state House and state Senate races. In this scenario, every candidate gets the same amount of neutral funding from a communal pot to run their campaign. Outside contributions are never allowed. This puts a stop to the unsavory practices of wealthy individuals buying influence, corporations shaping policy, and PACs influencing votes.
Now saying this makes me as popular as a fly in the punchbowl. Like it or not, the current campaign finance system is geared differently and right now it’s working for industry leaders and those in charge. Drastic reform will not happen overnight and it should not happen overnight. Increasing the frequency of campaign financing reporting is a good baby step. The next baby step will be to limit the timeframe for when elected officials can fundraise and accept campaign contributions.
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?
We should continue to expand the use of paperless technology, including digitizing older paper records. The Legislature needs to provide the Office of Information Practices with more staff to lead these efforts. Additionally, state agencies should reasonably presume that all government records are public unless explicitly stated. I support the idea of imposing fines and attorney fees when access to public records is unreasonably delayed. Of course, these fines must come from an agency’s appropriations funds and not its general fund.
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?
Let me start by saying that I unequivocally support public sector employees and their families. I will fight to protect health benefits and to ensure that promises made to retirees are kept. I view the current plans to pay for unfunded liabilities as a stop-gap measure. First, there are genuine concerns that the total liability amount has been miscalculated and the future dollar amount will actually be higher. We must be prepared for this possible shortfall. Second, we need to take a hard look at reducing costs without comprising the quality of contractually agreed benefits. Third, we must learn from our mistakes and enact ironclad safeguards so that the Legislature can never again borrow from these funds.
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?
Short answer – yes. The state has a chronic teacher shortage and the lowest starting salary in the nation when adjusted for cost of living. To recruit and retain quality teachers we need to pay them a fair wage. The problem is that public education does not currently have a dedicated funding stream in the annual state budget. Every year education must fight for its share of the communal funding pie and there is never enough to go around. The constitutional amendment on the ballot in November will create a new pie just for education in addition to the small piece of communal pie it currently gets.
I support this measure because it finally does something to address the teacher shortage. But I do have concerns. There are no safeguards that local renters won’t end up bearing the brunt of the tax. There are no guarantees that the Legislature won’t further reduce the existing general funding. Education is a state function but we are using a county tax to pay for it. I think a better option would be model like California where education is funded with proceeds from a state lottery or Colorado where funding comes from taxes on recreational marijuana.
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?
To me the solution is obvious. The state does not have enough sources of revenue and here is an untapped pool of tax revenue. Tap it! At the state-level, we should immediately create a system for vacation rental platforms like Airbnb to automatically collect and remit taxes on behalf of its hosts without giving any immunity or protections for unlawful property uses. Concerns about overcrowded neighborhoods and other problems are legitimate issues, and the state needs to empower the counties to appropriately deal with these issues. This includes giving the counties more tools to enforce their zoning and land use laws on illegal vacation rentals.
9. Do you support or oppose holding a state constitutional convention? Why or why not?
That’s a tough one. Our current state constitution asks voters every 10 years if they want to evoke a mechanism that will enable the rewriting of our state constitution. The process for doing this is called a constitutional convention, also known as a con con. The question will be on the ballot again in 2018.
Proponents argue that a new con con will reinvent government and instill much-needed enthusiasm in a jaded electorate. Other people argue that a con con has a high likelihood of being hijacked by special interests and extremists, leading to the undoing of hard-fought legal protections of the last 40 years.
Personally, I would have been more supportive of a con con if asked this question a few years ago. I have serious reservations about the current timing. Right now we seem to be going through a transformational and especially precarious period – socially, politically and environmentally. Society is more polarized than ever before in recent memory. We are still coming to terms with the challenges of fake news and a hair-trigger electorate. A con con right now will be a big gamble. We have a lot to gain but perhaps too much to lose.
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 a disaster preparedness and emergency management professional. In the past five years alone, I have responded to three of the most powerful hurricanes to ever make landfall in the Pacific and the most severe drought of the past 70 years. I recently met with the president of the Marshall Islands to discuss plans for relocating entire populations due to sea level rise. Let that sink in.
Climate chance is happening now and we must take action now. At the operational level, we need actionable and realistic plans for sea level rise including storm surges and buffer zones. At the tactical level, we need to leverage public-private partnerships to buy-down risk. We know that every $1 invested in preparedness saves $6 in recovery costs. At the strategic level, we need to do a better job at fostering economic resilience by diversifying our economy. One major hurricane could destroy Hawaii’s tourist industry for a decade.
Also, let’s be smart and turn this threat into an opportunity. I propose we develop a world-class Climate Change Research Center and local industry on the forefront of climate change innovations. This will be a boon to our local economy and service to greater humanity.
11. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
I have worn out three pairs of shoes knocking on thousands in Kapolei and Makakilo. I’ve enjoyed honest and frank discussions with hundreds of residents. The most pressing issue we face is traffic. I don’t think people fully appreciate the scope and scale of this problem for Leeward residents. It is more than just an inconvenience. It costs our state millions of dollars each day in lost productivity. It denies reasonable access to good-paying jobs for working families. It wastes valuable time we could spend with loved ones. Every year the problem gets worse. Enough!
I have made traffic my number one issue. It isn’t a sexy campaign topic and it certainly doesn’t attract big campaign donors, but I think this is a serious issue and we need real action now. My team has already taken the first steps of consulting with international traffic management experts and local traffic researchers. We have developed a straightforward six-point plan for reducing traffic congestion in Hawaii. Our solutions are based on modern technology, driver behaviors and better traffic management – not multibillion-dollar infrastructure projects. Check out my website to see an overview of this straightforward plan.