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 Sharon Har, a Democratic candidate for the state House of Representatives in District 42, which covers Kapolei and Makakilo. There is one other Democratic candidate, Jake Schafer.
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. Recent scandals involving prominent members of House leadership coupled with complaints from testifiers of numerous verbal assaults by committee chairs and members, are all evidence of a class of elected officials that behave as if they are above the law. These same individuals put a “price tag on transparency,” as if it was a checkbox to address “when it is convenient.”
Transparency is part of the cost of doing government. Televising/streaming committee hearings and floor debates are the great equalizer for citizen access and oversight of their elected officials when the Legislature proffers access to lobbyists and “serial testifiers” who do not have to work a day job to provide for their families.
It is unacceptable that oversight and enforcement against elected officials begins and ends with themselves.
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support 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 “label,” “party” or “affiliation” of an elected individual should not matter as each individual district elects the person that they believe is the most and best qualified to fulfill their duties. A lack of “Republicans” in elected office is a symptom and an indicator of a broader issue – censorship in the marketplace of ideas.
In a vibrant democracy where all ideas are openly and properly vetted, the best and most viable ideas should always rise to the top. This often includes opportunities for the general public to educate elected officials. The current leadership has stifled (or failed to) debate critical issues, preferring to crown a single proposal based on a party platform.
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. In addition to better lobbying and financial disclosures, the public would be better served if conflicts-of-interest faced much greater scrutiny. As with claims sexual harassment, the Legislature is the judge, jury and executioner when it comes declaring and recusing itself on conflicts of interest.
Statewide, there is overwhelming support to grant limited immunity for the indispensable work that our county lifeguards perform day-in and day-out. Barring gross negligence, our county lifeguards should be granted limited- immunity from criminal and civil prosecution while they faithfully execute their duties. Despite “overwhelming support,” House leaders have refused to pass the “county lifeguard bill.” The lack of progress on the lifeguard bill should raise many red flags when the very people holding up the bill are employed as plaintiff’s attorneys. Every claim of personal injury against a lifeguard, a fireman, an EMT or a police officer is an opportunity for a plaintiff’s attorney to make more money, at the expense of the “deep pocket,” the State of Hawaii. But what is important to remember is that the taxpayers are the ones who foot the bill for claims/lawsuits against the state.
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 would support the formation of an independent commission (similar to the Ethics and Campaign Spending commissions) granted with oversight and enforcement of valid open records requests to ensure that an even and fair standard is applied across both the executive and legislative branches of government. Representation on such a commission should ensure that public interest is balanced against valid logistical and fiscal limitations of complying with public records requests.
While transparency is a pillar of an effective democracy, there is a tangible cost that is also associated with broad or impractical open records requests. Fulfilling an open records request for 10 pages of documents is very different from one for 1,000 pages. In addition to document production, there is a necessary amount of hours that go into preparing a document for production. For example, the state is an employer, and with that comes the lawful burden of protecting employee information when required to by state and federal law. Redaction of this information also costs time and money.
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?
No. The state has made a promise to all public workers, to fully and faithfully fund their benefits – both in employment and retirement. It is the fiduciary responsibility of the Legislature to ensure that these benefits are fully funded. The lack of any progress on the state’s unfunded liabilities by the Legislature is further inexcusable considering that we have had six consecutive years of surplus budget.
In the last biennium, the Legislature found $15-million to repair the Capitol building but contributed nothing to reduce the state’s unfunded liability. This is not fiscally responsible leadership. If our children can be taught to pay their bills on-time, why shouldn’t the Legislature be expected to do the same?
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?
I support any additional mechanism that will increase the amount of funding for public education. The Hawaii Department of Education is having great difficulty attracting and retaining teachers. I have always supported funding the DOE so that they can fulfill their mission of ensuring that all children receive a quality education. If this plan comes to fruition, the allocation of the funding should be done in a way that is similarly (if not more) transparent to the current process. If additional money is needed for the Department of Education, open hearings and transparent reporting should demonstrate that the additional tax is both justified and judiciously use
This past legislative session, the legislature passed SB2922 which allows voters to decide this November as to whether the state constitution should be amended to allow for taxing investment properties to fund public education. I supported this bill because I believe the voters should be allowed to vote on this issue. Should the voters approve the amendment, it is incumbent upon the Legislature to define “investment properties,” as well as clarify how the funding will be used to support public education.
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. Everyone is expected to pay their “fair” share of taxes based on how they burden public resources. Property taxes are assessed on residents to pay for emergency services (police, fire, ambulances, etc.), among many public services. Visitors benefit from the same emergency services and pay for them through the transient accommodations tax (TAT). Visitors should be expected to pay their fair share whether they choose to stay at a hotel, resort, or transient vacation rentals (TVRs). As it stands now, residents pay for services for visitors utilizing TVRs, while the rental owners pocket the money that should be collected and deposited to the general fund.
In 2016, the Legislature passed HB1850 which would have allowed promoters of TVRs (i.e. Airbnb) to collect the TAT from their operators. However, the bill did not require TVR promoters to disclose certain information, including the identities of their operators and plan managers. Essentially, the Legislature was condoning illegal behavior since the state was collecting taxes on that illegal behavior. Gov. David Ige recognized the problems with the bill and rightfully vetoed it.
9. Do you support or oppose holding a state constitutional convention? Why or why not?
Yes. It is quite clear that the public does not trust government or elected officials to police themselves. The Legislature has frequently and unevenly invoked their ability to self-police to shield or to eviscerate other elected officials who are in our out of favor with whomever is in power.
I support the right to convene a constitutional convention (“con con”) as a check and balance against a government that the public feels is no longer “of,” “for” or “by” the people, but I do so with very strong reservations. A con con is viewed as the nuclear option that can be a Pandora’s Box. A con con is used to bring change – but while opening a con con might improve government accountability, it could also be used to roll back environmental protections or to abolish the Office of Hawaiian Affairs. Like any “nuclear option,” a con con should be used and applied very judiciously.
10. What should Hawaii be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
Residents are looking to government to take concrete action to defend our island homes against the effects of sea level rise and a warming climate. Action so far has focused on gestures that are largely symbolic. Committing to clean energy is part of our responsibility as global citizens, but the gestures of a small island state are hardly persuasive to large global emitters like China.
“Committing to clean energy by 2045” is little consolation to all the families on Kauai and East Oahu whose homes were flooded by what was supposed to be a 100-year storm. So far, government has shown no leadership to protect people from the very real effects of climate change. There will be more frequent flooding in low-lying areas. There will be coastal flooding due to larger waves and stronger tides (influenced in part by sea level rise). Paramount here is that there will be less fresh water to drink.
On this last note, I do recognize Gov. Ige’s efforts toward a tangible action to address climate change. A pilot project to use solar power to desalinate seawater for drinking water purposes was just initiated at NELHA on the Big Island.
11. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The biggest issue for residents of Kapolei and Makakilo is traffic – or at least the amount of time it takes to get from point A to point B. It is hard to think about anything else when you spend two (or more) hours a day at the brake lights in front of you. Unfortunately, there is no silver bullet to resolve traffic. In order to alleviate the traffic in Kapolei, we must take a multi-pronged approach including but not limited to: (1) incentivizing businesses to open in Kapolei so that we can continue creating more jobs in our Second City — this will obviate the need for residents from having to commute to town for employment; (2) implementation of transportation alternatives such as the rail in order to get people out of their cars; (3) coordination with the University of Hawaii system (as we all know, when UH Manoa is not in session, traffic is a different ballgame).
In Kapolei, there is a need for both small- and large-scale improvements. Large-scale capacity improvements are needed for those who have no choice but to endure soul-crushing morning and evening commutes to their places of work.