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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 Jeanné Kapela, one of three Democratic candidates for the state House of Representatives District 5, which covers Naalehu, Ocean View, Captain Cook, Kealakekua and Kailua-Kona. The others are Richard Creagan and Gene Leslie.
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, the Legislature should be more transparent in its actions to allow for greater public accountability. I believe that we should ban the common practice of holding fundraisers during legislative session for all elected officials, since this practice can lead to lawmakers becoming beholden to wealthy donors’ interests, rather than the people’s interest, when important measures are being considered. Moreover, we must increase public access to internal and electronic communications at the state Capitol, so that the complicated process of passing legislation is not hidden from public scrutiny.
As a victim service provider for survivors of sexual exploitation, I strongly support making public all sexual harassment allegations against elected leaders. We should also streamline the process for submitting and adjudicating such claims, so that victims do not feel intimated into silence.
Finally, I support televising and archiving all legislative hearings. Members of the public are often working two or three jobs to survive in our state. They may not be able to take time off from work to attend hearings. Archiving hearings for later viewing will allow the public to obtain vital legislative information and respond to issues that matter most to their communities on their own time.
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I support the enactment of a citizens initiative process, which will empower the public to make their voices heard on issues that the state Legislature fails to address. Too often, the Legislature hesitates on issues around which there is great public concern — establishing a paid family leave program or increasing education funding, for example — because of pressure from paid lobbyists and corporate interest groups.
At the same time, we must diligently work to diminish the role of money in politics. We cannot allow well-funded foreign and mainland-backed interest groups, like the National Rifle Association, or wealthy political actors, like the American Legislative Exchange Council, to hijack Hawaii’s political environment by spending millions of dollars on campaigns to roll back our basic rights.
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?
While the Democratic Party is the dominant political party in Hawaii, we cannot discount the fact that a number of would-be Republicans have joined the Democratic Party to advance their own political careers. The Hawaii Democratic Party’s platform is one of the nation’s most progressive. Yet, each year, we see so-called Democrats take positions that oppose their own party’s platform, even on major issues, like raising our state’s minimum wage.
That said, maintaining an open exchange of ideas is critical to a functioning system of governance. Accordingly, I believe that we should require more detailed financial disclosure of elected officials, so that the public is aware of any conflicts of interest that lawmakers may have when considering legislative matters. I also believe that we must strengthen Hawaii’s Shield Law for journalists, since the best way to increase accountability for legislators is to protect the ability of the media to operate freely, independently, and without fear of legal or political retaliation.
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, I support more frequent campaign finance reporting during election years. Given the advantages of modern technology, I would suggest increasing reporting to a quarterly or even monthly basis, which would give the public greater insight into who is financing our elections. This is especially important for primaries, since, as a virtually one-party state, many of Hawaii’s Democratic primaries are more competitive than general election contests. In fact, primary elections are often winner-take-all, with no non-Democratic candidate appearing on the general election ballot.
To truly improve our campaign financing system, I believe that we should increase public funding for local elections. According to a report from the Campaign Spending Commission that evaluated 2014 campaign donations and expenditures, winners of Hawaii state House races raised more than $48,000 and spent $44,000 in 2014. Their opponents raised an average of just over $15,000 and spent $13,700, a clear disparity.
Implementing a vigorous public funding, or “clean elections” system in Hawaii would stem the influence of corporate money in local politics, allow more people to run competitive campaigns for office, and, ultimately, ensure a greater range of ideas and interests are represented in government.
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?
Access to information is crucial to government accountability. I will work to improve public access to government records in three ways. To begin, I will request funding for additional staff at the Office of Information Practices, so that OIP has the resources needed to immediately respond to information requests and perform an oversight role when state agencies fail to comply with open records requirements.
Additionally, I support establishing a special fund for open records requests, which should be used to pay any fees and costs related to accessing government records for individuals and groups unable to do so out of their own accounts. Finally, given that we live in the era of Big Data and that government practices are becoming increasingly reliant on data processes, I believe that we should provide grants to community organizations for the development of online tools and digital applications capable of translating complex governmental data into information sets that are easily readable and searchable by 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?
No, I’m not satisfied with our efforts to pay for our state’s unfunded liabilities. Let’s be clear: We’re talking about the pensions and medical benefits that state workers have earned. We must keep our promises to those who have served our state, as well as those who plan to do so in the future. Hawaii’s legacy as a labor leader is a hallmark of our islands’ history and prosperity. State workers are the heartbeat of our economy.
Meeting our pension and medical obligations to current and future retirees is a matter of being forward-thinking in raising revenue. Right now, our state taxes aggregate corporate profits at an average of 5 to 5.8 percent. According a study of Hawaii’s tax code performed in 2017 by PFM consulting, If Hawaii enacts a flat 9 percent corporate tax rate, we could raise up to $185 million in new revenue. Moreover, we should consider implementing a personal income tax rate recapture, whereby the benefit of lower brackets is phased out for taxpayers with incomes above a certain level. Instituting rate recapture for those earning above $100,000 could generate up to $269 million annually, per PFM’s analysis.
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 wholeheartedly support changing allowing investment properties to be taxed to increase public school funding. As I reflect on my public school education, I’m saddened that the professionals who craft our children’s future are treated so poorly. Hawaii’s teacher salaries are the lowest in the nation when adjusted for cost of living, numerous studies show, leaving the islands with a chronic teacher shortage that undermines student achievement. According to recent reports, teachers are fleeing our shores at an 84 percent higher rate than in 2010.
We must give our teachers the respect they deserve and the professional pay they’ve earned. If passed by voters, the proposed constitutional amendment’s enabling language would not impact renters or the vast majority of working families. Rather, as the Hawaii State Teachers Association and lawmakers have stated, the tax would be levied on second homes valued at $1 million or greater, which are often owned by nonresident real estate speculators and used as Airbnb-style vacation rentals. Their owners use Hawaii as a private Monopoly board and decrease the housing supply for local residents.
It’s time to ensure that wealthy investors pay their fair share to deliver the schools our keiki deserve.
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?
It is unconscionable that we continue to allow vacation rentals to invade our communities without paying transient accommodations taxes. Countless studies have shown that vacation rentals — such as those advertised on Airbnb and VRBO — increase the cost of living in the areas in which they operate, while decreasing the supply of housing available to local residents.
Visitor industry experts believe Hawaii will exceed the 10 million visitor mark in the next couple of years. Accelerating lodging and consumer costs have not deterred people from visiting our islands. Yet, the vacation rental market undercuts the regulated hotel and lodging industry, taking good-paying jobs away from unionized employees.
Notably, vacation rental properties are often owned by foreign and mainland real estate speculators looking to profit from Hawaii’s global image as a tropical paradise. We must refocus our economy on the needs of our state’s working class, not the desires of Wall Street’s corporate class. Heavily regulating vacation rentals by restricting them to tourist zones and holding them accountable for paying all applicable transient accommodations taxes and fees is a good step in this direction.
9. Do you support or oppose holding a state constitutional convention? Why or why not?
I’m glad that voters will have an opportunity to vote, this year, on whether or not to hold a constitutional convention. I personally oppose holding a constitutional convention at this time, however, and would prefer to see constitutional amendments proposed and discussed during legislative session.
As a young Native Hawaiian woman who comes from a working class family, I am concerned that corporate interests would use a constitutional convention to jeopardize collective bargaining protections that safeguard economically disadvantaged employees, lay the groundwork for school voucher programs that could defund our public education system, and eviscerate Hawaiian rights that promote the well-being of our native community.
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 threat to our island home and our world, including to the world-renowned Kona and Ka’u coffee farms that operate in my district. As sea levels continue to rise and temperatures continue to soar, we must maintain Hawaii’s place as the world leader in addressing global warming and promoting renewable energy.
I’m heartened that the Legislature passed and Gov. David Ige signed into law several bills dealing with climate change this year, including requiring a sea level rise analysis in environmental impact statements and setting a goal for our state to become carbon neutral by 2045. Now, we must take the next step by passing a clean transportation bill that eliminates the use of fossil fuels in all ground and air transportation.
Additionally, I will sponsor legislation enacting a carbon tax for Hawaii, which the Brookings Institute estimates could generate up to $365 million in its first year of implementation for environmental and renewable energy initiatives. Finally, we must begin a managed retreat from our shorelines and crack down on illegal and destructive seawalls that worsen coastal erosion.
11. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
My top priority in office will be building a sustainable and affordable future for our keiki and their families. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, a full-time worker needs to earn $36.13/hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in our state. At minimum wage, a person would need to work 143 hours per week to afford a two-bedroom apartment. While the cost of living in West Hawaii is slightly lower than more urban areas of our islands, good-paying jobs remain scarce and access to affordable housing is limited.
To account for Hawaii’s high cost of living, we must provide a livable wage of at least $21/hour by 2021, with future increases pegged to the consumer price index. Additionally, it is imperative that we establish a paid family leave program based on a social insurance model for working families, so that people no longer have to choose between carrying out their jobs and caring for their keiki and kupuna. Finally, we have to invest in truly affordable housing by increasing the number of affordable units developers must build before receiving tax credits and floating $2 billion in general obligation bonds to subsidize affordable housing construction.