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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 Natalia Hussey-Burdick, a Democratic candidate for the state House Representative in District 49, which covers Kaneohe, Maunawili and Olomana. There are three other Democratic candidates, Shannon Kaui Dalire, Scot Matayoshi and Mo Radke.
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?
As a community advocate who’s been testifying at the Legislature for years, I appreciate Civil Beat’s efforts to increase transparency and hold our legislators accountable. It has become even more astonishing to me since I started working at the Capitol, where I’ve seen from the inside that many of these problems go far deeper than they initially appear.
Fortunately, a lot of those problems are theoretically easy to fix.
An immediate step toward accountability for sexual harassment would be to hang posters in all the capitol bathrooms detailing our harassment policy and information on how to report violations. That simple information would go a long way to empower victims to come forward and shift the culture toward a more respectful, harassment-free workplace.
Transparency is another simple fix. We have the technology, there is no excuse for us not to televise and record all hearings, and allow testimony via video conference. It’s tragic how many neighbor island residents fly to Oahu to testify on issues that deeply impact their lives, often with only 48 hours notice before the hearing.
While working at the Legislature I also found that there are internal resources and documents that make it much easier to navigate the legislative process. We should make those resources public.
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
CItizen-driven ballot initiatives can potentially produce great rewards and be a powerful tool for citizens, but they comes with an extremely high risk of corporate takeover since the Supreme Court has ruled that corporations can spend unlimited money to promote or defeat such initiatives. Hawaii already allows for limited county-level initiative and referendum, but we’ve seen that sometimes successful county initiatives have been overturned by the courts when it was determined that the counties didn’t have proper authority to regulate the issue in question.
I’ve spent a great deal of time carefully considering both sides. Call me an optimist, but I have faith in the voters to decide each issue for themselves. I ultimately think the citizens initiative process has more potential for good than evil, especially after a streak of disappointing legislative sessions where the Legislature has repeatedly failed to represent the interest of the general public. I would support a statewide initiative process with appropriate safeguards in place to protect our people and our environment.
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 a proud Democrat, and as such I actually wish we had stronger second and third parties in Hawaii. We see it happen all the time, people switch parties and run as a Democrat because they know that particular party label will give them a 15 percentage point boost in our state. This practice undermines our party values, and leaves the true Democrats wondering how to hold our legislators accountable when they act in direct opposition to our party platform.
This creates further problems when those legislators who are Democrats-in-name-only force through unethical bills, or use their power to kill bills that have overwhelming community support.
I’ve been working with fellow Democrats to try to solve this problem, and unfortunately we haven’t yet been able to come up with a good solution. I’m open to ideas, but it seems that the best thing we can do is keep shining a light on the unethical practices, and encourage people to vote in the primaries. Automatic voter registration would help, because a lot of these politicians get elected by a few thousand votes in the Democratic primary, and then they face little to no challenge in the general.
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 would absolutely support at least one more reporting period between January and July in election years. Most of us have no idea how much candidates have raised (and who they are taking money from) until mid July, when the mail-in ballots have already gone out.
More frequent reporting would allow voters more time to inform themselves about their candidate’s sponsors before they receive their ballot.
One way we could improve the disclosure system is to create a way to search the database by donor. Right now, we can look up each candidate and see who their donors are, but there’s no way to look up a donor and see all the candidates they’ve supported financially.
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 strongly support increased transparency and public access in all forms of government. Denying and delaying access to public records has been an ongoing issue for years, especially frustrating because we already have the technology to address it. The best solution is to require these agencies to transcribe all public records into electronic format and allow for the public to search these documents online. This eliminates the need for the agencies to spend time and energy searching through the records themselves, and preserves the information in case the physical documents deteriorate from exposure to the elements.
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?
Hawaii has one of the highest unfunded liabilities in the country, a clear consequence of poor planning. Pre-paying pensions and other post-employment benefits (OPEBs) are one of the easiest ways we can drive down future costs. The most unsettling part of our extremely high unfunded liability is that we don’t even have a budget deficit — we actually ended last year with a budget surplus of hundreds of millions of dollars.
That’s not enough to cover all of it, but I see at least two sizable areas we are currently losing out on major tax revenues: thousands of untaxed temporary vacation rentals, and a loophole allowing Real Estate Investment Trusts to take billions of dollars out of the state without paying any Hawaii state income tax.
Our public worker pensions and OPEBs are compensation for work performed, and the state is legally required to fully fund them. We can’t allow Hawaii to continue to be a tax haven for rich landowners at the expense of our working families.
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?
We are the only state in the nation that doesn’t fund our schools with property taxes, and we continually rank among the lowest in almost every metric of measuring success in public education.
If this constitutional amendment passes on the November 2018 ballot, I would be honored to be one of the legislators that determine how best to implement it. I strongly feel that second, third, fourth, (etc.) homes over $1 million should have a small percentage of their property tax go toward our statewide public education system, especially since most of those properties are owned by foreign speculators and remain vacant or are used as luxury short-term vacation rentals. In the interest of maintaining our rental housing supply, I would exempt Hawaii residents who rent their properties on a long-term basis.
I would also like to ensure proper spending oversight by mandating that these funds are allocated toward specific purposes like increasing teacher salary, reducing class sizes, improving rundown facilities and purchasing classroom supplies.
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?
Illegal vacation rentals are a growing problem in many ways. They are operating at an unfair advantage to the hotels, which have to pay transient accommodations tax, and they place an unreasonable burden on our residential communities, which suffer additional traffic and higher rental market prices.
We need to start by enforcing the existing laws, and prosecuting the companies that facilitate the illegal transactions online.
I also recognize that the state is missing out on millions, if not billions in potential revenue from taxes and fees by allowing this illegal activity to continue. This is an easy revenue stream if we create a path to legalization for limited numbers in certain neighborhoods, with higher tax rates for investment properties than owner-occupied units. This would disincentivize investors who are taking rental housing out of the long-term rental market, while simultaneously allowing residents to earn some extra income by renting out a room in their house.
9. Do you support or oppose holding a state constitutional convention? Why or why not?
I have attended enough political conventions to know that the outcome is decided by whichever lobbying group puts the most people in the room. With the Supreme Court ruling in favor of Citizens United, there is nothing we can do to limit the influence of big money as “free speech” on the delegate selection process. With some of the most coveted land in the world, I’m sure wealthy special interest groups from all over the world can’t wait to pour millions into such a campaign to gain influence over the document that dictates everything from our environmental protections to our governing policies.
For the most part, I agree with the provisions in our state constitution as it is. The problems we face usually lie with drastically underfunded enforcing agencies, not with the document itself. It contains a lot of hard-won environmental protections, Native Hawaiian rights, collective bargaining rights, ethics rules, and so much more.
We could lose all of that depending on who gets to vote at the convention. With the current political climate, I don’t think it’s worth the risk of exposing the entire document to special interest groups to achieve a handful of gains that could be changed through the regular constitutional amendment process.
10. What should Hawaii be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
Climate change is a huge threat in Hawaii, especially to our coastal communities. Fortunately, the Legislature just passed a bill requiring all future environmental impact statements to consider sea level rise, so we can build our infrastructure smarter and better the first time instead of spending taxpayers’ money to correct the problem and mitigate the effects later.
Moving forward, managed retreat has to be part of the conversation, in addition to considering creative solutions like Manhattan’s approach of becoming a “floodable city” where designated parks and roadways are designed to accommodate high tides.
Another aspect of climate change is resilience to natural disasters, which is especially important to us as one of the most isolated land masses in the world. Right now, we import about 90 percent of our food and energy, which leaves us vulnerable if something should happen to our harbors. I would like to see a statewide shift toward more sustainable agriculture and local food and energy production, so we’re better suited to provide for ourselves if an extreme weather event renders our ports unusable.
11. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
I think the most painful problem for our Windward community is the increase in homelessness, which is a tragic combined result of our inadequate public school system, a lack of affordable housing, poor wages, insufficient services for our veterans and people struggling with behavioral health issues, drugs, and more.
There are multiple things we can do in the short and long term to help.
We desperately need more service providers to help our houseless veterans, youth and families get back on their feet. We currently only have two to three social workers to serve all the homeless individuals from Kahaluu to Waimanalo, there is no way they can keep up with the workload. With so many diverse causes of homelessness, we have to take an individualized approach and help each person connect with the services they need for their situation.
In the long term, we need to address the root causes of homelessness by reducing the barriers to higher education and trade schools, raising wages so working families can afford housing, improving access to mental health care, and providing transitional services to high risk groups like veterans coming home from combat and young adults aging out of foster care.
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