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Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 6 General Election, 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 Nick Nikhilananda, the Green Party candidate for state House of Representatives District 13, which covers Haiku, Hana, Kaupo, Kipahulu, Nahiku, Paia, Kahoolawe, Lanai, Molokai and Molokini. There is one other candidate, Democrat Lynn DeCoite.
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?
The Legislature is not subject to the same Sunshine Laws which County governments are required to follow. This must immediately change. I would push for, among other items, the recording of all votes, and the easy access of such votes, televising hearings as much as feasibly possible, expanding testimony being accepted via closed circuit from neighbor islands, and numerous other progressive changes.
The legislature is way too top heavy; giving committee chairs excessive power. As a member of the Green Party, my challenge will be all the more greater. However I will accept that challenge. As to the reforms you mention, I would seek out like-minded colleagues and press for these needed changes in the power of lobbyists, sexual harassment, and the extravagant fundraising which goes on. I would demand that any funds which are raised through PACs, corporations or businesses be made public.
The influence of money in politics is out of control. Campaign finance reform and public financing of elections is possibly the most potent change which could bring about a more equal playing field. It is horrendous the huge amount of money necessary to stand for elective office, and the influence it has after one is elected.
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I have long been a champion of citizens initiative. I have previously been a candidate for elective office, plus have testified numerous times on this very issue. I attended both the 2001 and 2011 Maui charter commission meetings of the Maui County Council advocating for this very item, urging them to place a number of initiatives on the ballot without success. As a candidate for this seat in 2016, I brought this up many times. I was also quite active, both as a candidate advocating for, and campaigning for, the citizens initiative of 2014, which was the first time an initiative made it on the Maui County ballot.
The threshold for the number of signatures needed and the time frame to obtain those signatures make it an overwhelming challenge. However, not only did we get the necessary signatures and successfully got the initiative on the ballot, but it passed; both first-time events! This is another one of those long overdue items which Hawaii must include. Too often, the power of lobbyists and committee chairs, block this progressive item. We must allow the voters of Hawaii to have a direct citizens impact on the laws and rules of our state.
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?
We must institute campaign finance reform, public financing of elections, plus move toward preferential/instant runoff/ranked choice voting. We need to demand that all candidates receive equal treatment from the media. Hawaii has five political parties, yet with little opposition from the Greens, Libertarians, Constitution or Republicans, the Democrats totally dominate our Legislature. Nevertheless, many members would be Republicans on the mainland; which is why it is so hard to get through progressive legislation.
The Democrats are controlled by a certain power structure, connected to large landowners, multinationals, developers, the visitor industry and trade unions. Most political activists and candidates join the party because of this influence, with a wide range of cliques and positions within the party. It seems those who want to see progressive change occur in Hawaii end up joining the Democrats. Yet in Hawaii County, seven times three members of the progressive Green Party were elected to their County Council, then two former Green Party candidates left the party, joined the Democrats, and were elected to the state House and the state Senate. We also see Republicans realizing the futility of staying in that party, joining the Democrats, and are also successfully able to run for office.
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?
The first step for me would be to research and fully comprehend what are the significant laws which currently exist. Chapter 84 is the State Ethics Code and Chapter 97 is the section dealing with lobbyists. I would do a comprehensive review of the laws and operations within the Hawaii State Ethics Commission. Most elected officials and candidates attempt to do the “right thing,” nevertheless, there will be some who take advantage of the loopholes and stretch what is currently legal and allowed.
Limit the ability of lobbyists to have inappropriate leverage on members of the Legislature. The power which lobbyists and money have toward access to members is extremely imbalanced. Too many former legislators become lobbyists in too short a time with an enormous amount of access to elected officials. I would introduce and support legislation which would tighten up the oversight of what lobbyists are allowed to do with elected officials.
Enforce, tighten, strengthen laws plus increase penalties relating to reporting of campaign contributions. More frequent reporting of campaign donations plus require reporting of amounts under a hundred dollars. I would seek out additional input from members of the community to examine what various ideas they may have.
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.
The Federal Public Access to Court Electronic Records (“PACER”) system allows users to view and print various docket information from the federal trial, bankruptcy, and appellate courts. Congress has authorized the ability to raise funds to support PACER by setting appropriate user fees. However to ensure the fees do not impair public access to the courts, Congress directed the Judicial Conference to “provide for exempting persons or classes of persons” for whom fees would be an unreasonable burden.
This federal template is used by various state agencies to obtain documents for research and information. However, it appears that this ability to get a waiver from exorbitant charges does not apply to media outlets. This is outrageous! Investigative journalism is a requirement for a free and open democratic society. Reasonable fees, as taxes, are a requirement for operating government on all levels; however, there is a chilling effect when charges outstrip the ability for the person requesting the information to pay.
We need to do whatever is possible to adopt legislation which allows media outlets to obtain the information they need to educate and inform the community and citizens of Hawaii. A reasonable fee structure is appropriate; exorbitant charges are not.
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 Employee Retirement System (ERS) unfunded liability is the amount of money which exceeds the current funds available. There must be a balance between what is paid into the fund every year and the obligation to meet current necessities of government. Current law requires annual tax contributions meant to pay down the unfunded liabilities within thirty years. We really do not know how much is owed. We need to have better accounting and more transparency in our liabilities. Then we can look at ways to reduce and eliminate debt while still providing stable retirements for our public employees.
There are the OPEB (other post-employment benefit) liabilities, such as health and life insurance, dental and other benefit programs, besides the pensions promised to public employees. All of Hawaii’s citizens need to work together to fix the problem without pushing the burden onto future generations. However it is important that we have the funds available to pay for our current needs and not divert too much money toward paying off the debt. If extra payments into the pension fund are made, it will come out of critical government services. New revenue sources and perhaps increased taxes and fees, may be in order.
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 am not against this proposal/idea. I have long advocated taxing, on a tiered system, property taxes for both more expensive properties and non-resident purchases, within our legal and constitutional ability. Most real estate purchases are made by non-Hawaii residents, so there may be quite a windfall. I know currently county property taxes does not go to fund our education system. The DOE receives over $2 billion! We need an audit of where some of this money goes, why is the department so top-heavy with bureaucrats and non-classroom personnel and other related items?
We can not keep throwing good money at the wall and hope it sticks. I also advocate breaking up the state educational system into a locally controlled county system, similar to the rest of the United States. I say all of this as a DOE substitute teacher for years, seeing from the inside some of the absurdities. We must also raise taxes and fees on resorts, hotels, time shares, and all non residents’ homes, including local Hawaii residents who have second, third and more homes. All discounts need to go only to the home being occupied as a residential dwelling. Plus raise the pay of teachers.
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?
The operative term here is “illegal.” There is no excuse to have allowed vacation rentals, short term rentals, plus bed and breakfasts to have sprouted as they have for years! There is little difference than invasive species which are devastating our island state. When someone has a room or two in their home, or perhaps a one- or two-bedroom ohana, then it is something which would be beneficial to the property owner and our island guest. However, there needs to be no exception for vacation rentals to have mushroomed on land not zoned for them. Limit them to Hawaii residents. If a person has more than one dwelling, this should not be allowed at all, even in resort, hotel and properly zoned areas. Enough is enough.
Hire the additional people power necessary to document which properties are not being used legally and cite them with a minimum time to pay. Nevertheless, due process is necessary, if a property is falsely cited. Use modern technology to detect which properties are not in compliance. I am not against someone renting out one or two rooms within their home to a short term guest or visitor. This is aloha at its finest.
9. Do you support or oppose holding a state constitutional convention? Why or why not?
There has not been a constitutional convention in Hawaii since 1978. There is even talk throughout the United States about possibly holding an Article V convention. If we hold a convention, there needs to be an enormous check on what changes do occur. The last convention incorporated some significant environmental, cultural and indigenous legislation and requirements. These need to be strengthened, not diminished. However, large landowners, huge special and corporate interests, development and mainland entities are fully aware of what they could do to negatively impact our mostly progressive document and see this as an opportunity to drastically curtail, not strengthen, our constitution.
Nevertheless, there are too many areas which the Legislature seems ill-prepared to deal with. The power and influence of money and lobbyists on our body politic; the lack of citizens’ initiatives, the state controlled educational system, the structure of our political subdivisions, land use, zoning, home rule, our method of holding and funding our elections and the centralization of the state are just a few examples. Thus I currently tend to support holding a constitutional convention, knowing full well the devastation which could occur; hoping to be actively involved to insure a positive outcome is the result.
10. What should Hawaii be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
Education, education, education. We have to be instructing our visitors, tourists, residents and the keiki. We are challenged by a national administration which refuses to accept reality and has instituted proposals, legislation and installed deniers into significant federal positions of authority. We must promote renewable energy, increase our local food production, provide more funding for the control of invasive species. We have to be protecting our watersheds, fisheries and corals which are increasingly being depleted. We must have effective management, along with long-term planning, sufficient enforcement plus continuous monitoring.
We need all segments of our community to accept what is occurring and what we need to do. The following are two quotes from my campaign website from 2016; they are still included and just as relevant in 2018:
“Nor can we subject our ‘aina to a continual onslaught of who knows what chemicals, which poison the land and eventually find their way into our water aquifers and runs off into the ocean. Injection wells, which should have been retired years ago, have finally been shown to damage our reefs.” Plus: “Ban any more construction state-wide on public beaches and on the makai side of the closest road to the beach.”
11. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The quality of life is the significant issue facing the mostly secluded, remote and rural regions of this area of Maui County. It is patently unfair that House District 13 includes three of the most remote places in the state, on three different islands. Each community is unique and what impacts Molokai is not the same as the needs which East Maui requires. Access and expansion to medical facilities, government services and educational opportunities are areas which impact all three regions. The north shore of Maui is different than East Maui, where finally the taking of water from the streams is being curtailed, while the various areas of Molokai have their own unique challenges. Lanai is basically a privately owned island.
Affordable housing and economic opportunities are other significant issues affecting the entire district. Only 1 percent of the Maui County operating budget, including CIP’s, is directed toward the north shore and East Maui. The state does basically the same, mostly ignoring and under funding these communities. An example is the Pa’ia Bypass, with funding once again being threatened by the state, yet urgently needed now. Though no one currently inhabits Kahoolawe, it is part of District 13.