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 Jarrett Keohokalole, a Democratic candidate for state Senate District 24, which covers Kaneohe, Marine Corps Base Hawaii, Kailua, Heeia and Ahuimanu. He is one of two Democratic candidates. The other is Kenneth Ito.
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! We should be livestreaming all legislative sessions, hearings, and briefings! This technology is available and often happens anyway because constituents will attend and livestream proceedings, as is their right. I also strongly support allowing neighbor island residents to testify live, whether through video conference or a streaming mechanism like Facebook Live or Snapchat. This might take some time to configure correctly, but I am confident we can figure it out with little inconvenience.
I also support making prior testimony and video of legislative proceedings more accessible. This shouldn’t be too difficult either. Right now, it is too cumbersome to search for submitted testimony on bills that were previously heard in other committees. I have encountered this problem myself while trying to do research. This would have a big impact on transparency and accountability, because often a search of a bill’s legislative history, testimony, and floor debate will tell the story of what happened on an issue.
It’s obvious that sexual harassment policy reform needs to happen. My preference is that this process should driven and reviewed by a third party, with the women’s caucus as the lead in managing the effort.
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Respectfully, I have serious concerns about a statewide citizens initiative process. Our founders created a representative democracy for a reason. By and large, it has worked remarkably well. The way to make it work for our time is to fix our legislative process, not circumvent it.
I believe that using technology to blow open access and transparency to our legislative process will achieve the same purpose more effectively. Western states, like California, have seen the impacts of allowing wealthy citizens to promote certain agendas through propaganda and manipulation of citizen’s initiatives. California’s Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in 2008, is an example of this. The Michigan International Bridge Initiative was another, where one wealthy toll bridge owner almost succeeded in using a ballot initiative to kill a public bridge project that would have competed with its own toll business.
Unfortunately, citizens initiatives often allow special interests to avoid the same scrutiny that our legislative process presently affords. Our increasingly conservative Supreme Court has empowered these individuals to use their money to manipulate our democracy without restriction. The citizens initiative vehicle has shown the potential to give special interests and dangerous demagogues even greater access to the levers of power. We have too much of that already.
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?
One party control is not ideal. But the loss of Republican seats in the Legislature is not the fault of Democrats, but a reflection of the Republican Party being out of touch with Hawaii voters and the issues that our constituents really care about. The biggest problem with one party control in Hawaii is when conservative Republicans pose as Democrats and operate behind closed doors. We should have a diversity of opinions within the Democratic Party and the Legislature, but the system is not designed for one-party control where all the real debates happen behind closed doors.
Again, technology has presented us with a valuable opportunity to shine a light on the legislative process quickly and effectively. We shouldn’t just be videotaping hearings. We should be livestreaming them! We should be cutting hearings into video spots featuring the individual bills being heard and attaching the accompanying testimony for those specific bills for later access. We will not get this right immediately, but we should try, fail fast, and adopt a mechanism for featuring the legislative process in a much more accessible and user friendly platform. This will make it easier for the public to track what is going on, how legislators are voting, and empower them to draw conclusions for themselves. This is not as hard as it seems — it just requires urgency.
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?
Current campaign finance reporting requirements are overly complicated and thus build in an advantage for incumbents and wealthy campaigns. We should streamline them and (again) use technology to make reports more easily accessible.
Currently, there are less disclosures early in a cycle, when entrenched incumbents and “viable” candidates for higher office do the majority of their fundraising. Then there are multiple reports due in quicker increments before the election, when new candidates and grass-roots campaigns are mobilizing and doing the bulk of their fundraising. This dynamic means that new candidates and candidates without the same financial resources are disadvantaged by the complicated nature of reporting.
This process was intended to publicize where special interest money is being spent in the closing weeks of the election. There is a better way to do this without building in additional advantages to entrenched or well-financed candidates. The Campaign Spending Commission recently adopted a better policy on tracking campaign money and how it is spent in the closing period of an election. Campaigns and super PACs now have to disclose when they are making large advertising purchases before they are made. This allows the public to see dark money coming and what it is being used for.
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?
In general, our state agencies are not designed for end-user constituent engagement. This is a big part of the problem in state government and fuels voter apathy. Even rank-and-file legislators don’t have reasonable access to a complete accounting of any particular agency’s revenues and expenses. I continually find myself at odds with state agencies to make their programs and processes more accessible to the public and the legislature.
For example, in my first year in office I authored Act 230, which streamlined the approval process for community groups to repair Hawaiian fishponds. We prevailed in passing the law, but it took a fight with several agencies to get them to understand that their process was impeding community work. The bureaucracy was hard to navigate. Groups were waiting years to get environmental permits to fix fishpond walls that were hundreds of years old!
Constituent service — customer service — isn’t a priority for most agencies. This needs to change in more contexts than just public records. We should start by making the state budget public. Our current process makes for inefficient budgeting that ultimately limits transparency and accountability. With that said, I support limiting fees and forcing agencies to comply with records requests more expeditiously.
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?
The real challenge is sticking to the current plan. We contribute a huge amount of money to the plan, and it will only increase in the future. The largest obstacle we face is the temptation to divert money from paying down the unfunded liability in order to support other needs. Our current period of economic prosperity will not last forever, and when the next recession hits, there will be enormous pressure to raid these contributions to balance the budget.
My focus the last four years has been to reform our other government systems to save us money. I’ve worked with the Office of Enterprise Technology Services to make sure that we efficiently modernize our state IT systems. The tax modernization project will save us millions by helping us crackdown on tax cheats. Upgrading the DHS KOLEA system will save tens of millions of dollars in maintenance costs. Fixing procurement of state IT projects — a major priority of mine — will save additional tens of millions of dollars as we continue to modernize state government. These savings can create flexibility in our budget to offset growing unfunded liability commitments that we need to stick to.
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?
Yes, I support taxing investment properties to fund the DOE. Investor class real estate speculation is ruining the Hawaii we know. It is a substantial part of our housing problem, because affordable housing projects are competing with luxury developments for our limited land resources, and the properties are rapidly driving up the value and cost of land.
The only reasonable way to create a disincentive for all this luxury real estate speculation is to tax luxury investment property. I don’t support extending this to owner-occupied property or property that is used for long-term rental housing. Every other state in the union uses property taxes to fund schools, and wealthy speculators can and should pay more.
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, this is a huge problem. I opposed measures aimed at allowing Airbnb and other online operators to collect TAT on behalf of their hosts without confirmation that those units are legal. Without proof of compliance, I think allowing TAT collection does serve as a tacit state approval of illegal activity and circumvents the land use authority of the counties. We should instead assist the counties by strengthening their ability to enforce their own ordinances that regulate commercial activity in residential neighborhoods.
9. Do you support or oppose holding a state constitutional convention? Why or why not?
I have strong concerns about holding a constitutional convention. Ultimately, this is up to the voters. Currently, super PAC funding plays far too large a role in our elections. The same risk of undue influence by dark money poses a risk of co-opting a constitutional convention. The Hawaii constitution is respected for its multitude of additional legal safeguards and protections that the U.S. Constitution does not offer. Civil rights, the water code, Native Hawaiian rights, and collective bargaining are all potentially at risk. Amendments to our constitution that either add super PAC-backed provisions or remove safeguards are a big concern. Like my concerns with a statewide citizens initiative, opportunities for special interests and demagogues to influence the backbone of our democracy are too great a threat.
10. What should Hawaii be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
We can start by living more sustainably ourselves. This means continuing to lead on renewable energy, but also on other initiatives that allow our society to reduce the damage it does to our native ecosystems. For example, I wrote bills that have addressed our massive cesspool problem, which we now know has a significant negative impact on reefs. I have also sponsored and supported initiatives to recapture and reuse water, sequester carbon by planting more trees, ban chemicals like oxybenzone that kill our reefs, and figure out better ways of reusing our waste and reusable industrial products like abandoned cars.
We do need to start planning for impending sea level rise. Frankly, we don’t have good answers. We are starting to take the proper steps, like requiring sea level rise to be considered in EIS applications, limiting development along the shoreline, and discouraging the construction of new sea walls. But we need to continue to convene people to come up with solutions that will allow us to adapt.
This challenge does present us with an opportunity to find innovative approaches to adapt, and I am optimistic that if we can bring the right collections of people together, we will figure this out.
11. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
We are desperately short of housing on Oahu. It has made it too expensive to live in our district for too many. Retired seniors are worried about whether their fixed income will continue to cover the rising property assessments. For the vast majority of young families like mine, the possibility of owning a home here is simply out of reach. And too many working families and single parents are a paycheck away from homelessness because of the high cost of rent.
We need to build more housing in town to take pressure off of the windward side. The urban core is best situated to accommodate higher density development. As majority policy leader, I’m proud to have played a part in the passage of Act 39, which allocates a total of $570 million toward the construction of 25,000 rental housing units for our workforce, at rates that our workforce can afford.
The fact that the Legislature made progress on a number of major issues this year, like homelessness, housing, oxybenzone, pesticides, and aid in dying, shows that the system can work. To make it work, it takes urgency and a commitment to new approaches and ideas that challenge the status quo.