Sure, the tight races and intense, expensive campaigning of the 2018 primary may be pau, but Hawaii voters still face critical decisions at the ballot box in November.

Chief among them are proposed changes to the state’s Constitution. Hawaii voters will decide whether to approve a constitutional amendment that would allow the Legislature to raise taxes on “investment real properties” in order to help fund public education.

The Legislature opted earlier this year to put that measure on the ballot. The move was strongly supported by the Hawaii State Teachers Association and other local education advocacy groups. Local tourism groups as well as neighbor island county governments opposed it.

HSTA Teachers and Staff jubilate after vote passed in their favor thru the senate.
Hawaii teachers celebrate in April after the state Senate passed a key vote to put a constitutional amendment to voters. It would allow the state to impose a surcharge on residential investment properties to help fund public education. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Voters will also decide whether to hold another state constitutional convention. That option appears on the ballot automatically every 10 years.

If Hawaii voters approve the first such convention since 1978, its delegates could weigh a host of potential — and contentious — amendments to the state’s Constitution. Some have suggested such topics as term limits for state legislators, allowing citizen ballot initiatives and referendums, even abolishing or revamping the Office of Hawaiian Affairs.

They could even consider language that would launch a statewide single-payer health care system, said Jim Shon, a former Hawaii legislator.

But Shon, who directs the Hawaii Educational Policy Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa, worries there aren’t enough neutral sources to educate Hawaii voters on complex constitutional issues before they head back to the polls.

Furthermore, “there’s a real fatigue issue with the daily news cycle,” Shon said Wednesday. “More and more, people that are involved in public affairs are saying to me, ‘I don’t watch the news anymore.’ And if you have a population that’s already tuned out,” Shon wondered, then how can you engage voters on such “wonky” issues?

He further pointed to the state’s still-low voter turnout — some 38.6 percent of registered voters in the state cast ballots in Saturday’s primary race.

Saturday, August 11, 2018. Hawaii is headed to the polls Saturday to weigh in on a number of key primary election races, including governor and congress. (Civilbeat Photo Ronen Zilberman)
Hawaii headed to the polls Saturday to weigh in on a number of key primary election races, including Governor and Congress. Ronen Zilberman/Civil Beat

The close candidate races this year all appear to have been resolved in the primary election, as the state is dominated by the Democratic Party.

However, as that primary race also demonstrated, there’s always the chance for upsets. Sen. Brickwood Galuteria, for example, suffered a surprising primary loss to his Democratic challenger, Sharon Moriwaki. Incumbent Reps. Cindy Evans and Lei Learmont also lost their primaries.

On the county level, voters will encounter proposed charter amendments as well.

On Oahu, for example, voters will be asked to resolve a lingering quirk with the board that oversees rail. Last year, the state added four nonvoting members to the Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transportation board to keep a closer eye on Hawaii’s largest-ever public works project, which has run into repeated financial trouble.

But the expansion created quorum and voting issues for the rail board. City leaders have proposed a charter amendment that would restructure the board, boosting voting members from nine to 10 and basing quorum on just those voting members.

Here are some of the amendments that neighbor island residents will consider:

  • In Maui County, voters will decide whether to enact stiffer penalties for providing transient accommodations without the proper permit. A proposed charter amendment could boost those fines from the current $1,000 to $20,000 — plus an additional $10,000 a day, according to draft language.
  • They’ll also decide whether to expand the use of Maui County’s Open Space, Natural Resources, Cultural Resources, and Scenic Views Preservation Fund. Currently, at least 1 percent of the county’s property tax revenues goes toward acquiring conservation lands, according to the proposed amendment’s draft language. The amendment would allow officials to use those dollars “to perform safety and security improvements” as well.
  • On Kauai, voters are poised to decide whether to repeal that county’s ability to provide those accused of a crime with public defenders. Draft language from the charter commission contends that the office “was rendered obsolete” nearly a half-century ago when the state created its own public defender’s office.
  • They’ll also likely weigh a charter amendment that would strip the Kauai County Council of its authority to create an electric power authority. The draft language contends that the Kauai Island Utility Cooperative “has competently managed and operated” the power system there “for more than a decade and a half.”
  • Hawaii county officials say that island’s leaders are also considering potential charter amendments for the ballot.

State and county officials have until Aug. 23 to submit all of their proposed constitutional and charter amendments, so the Office of Elections hasn’t posted the final language for those questions as they’ll appear on the ballot yet.

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