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 Gene Ward, the Republican candidate for the state House of Representatives District 17, which covers Hawai’i Kai and Kalama Valley. There is one other candidate, Libertarian Alan Yim.
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?
This is a question of many parts:
• Regarding television/broadcast of legislative proceedings: The Legislature will not allow the broadcasting of all committee hearings or floor debates. I’ve introduced legislation and I speak on the House floor for Hawaii to create the equivalent of a C-SPAN, wherein every hearing and floor session are recorded for the public to see.
• The Minority Caucus introduced legislation to bring more openness to the legislative process by allowing neighbor islanders to be able to testify in hearings via Skype. The Majority ignored this legislation, even though it now costs almost $200 and sometimes $300 for a neighbor islander to fly to Honolulu and back home. So in the process, almost 40 percent of our population is disenfranchised.
• Regarding staff salary transparency: The 2018 Legislature took a serious step backwards (again over the strong objections of the minority) to redact legislative staff salaries so the public could no longer see who was paid what.
• Regarding fundraisers held during the session: This was often spoken of as practice that would be disallowed by legislation, but this year’s fundraiser letter sent out by the leadership of the House and Senate in favor of one gubernatorial candidate over another, pretty much squelched this as a piece of legislation in the 2019 session.
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Yes, of course I support this process, big time. I introduced this type of legislation numerous times in the past to no avail, so Hawaii remains really out of step with the entire nation regarding initiative, referendum, and recall.
Legislative leaders of the majority have chosen not to empower or trust the people of this state to exercise the right of initiative. Keeping the power-levers in the hands of those who want to preserve the status quo has continually prevailed. Change agents who favor initiative are feared and openly spoken against. Even a constitutional convention that is required to be asked of voters every 10 years usually fails because blank votes are counted as “no” votes, hence there has not been a ConCon since 1978.
The prevailing fear in the power centers is that things will get out of hand, and could shift the balance of power away from the status quo.
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?
“Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely” as Lord Acton said years ago for situations like we have in Hawaii. Unfortunately, too many people in Hawaii think this is good for us and is a kind of poetic justice for the absolute rule that Republicans had over the state for its first 60 years of existence.
The pendulum has swung so far away from the semblance of a two-party system, checks and balances have been thrown out the window.
One party rule in Hawaii has gotten us as far as we will ever get, because the present monopoly contains the seeds of its own destruction. There are concrete reasons why Hawaii is nearly in last place when it comes to income, education, roads, cost of living, homelessness, etc., and is unable to do much about it. With no opposition, the strong become weaker and that is what we see before our very eyes when it comes to solving Hawaii’s problems. It is no one’s fault, it is the human condition to want to have all the power, but when the interests of the people are forsaken for the sake of the party and its privileged leaders, change is inevitable.
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 have always been a strong advocate of frequent and accurate campaign disclosure; I even wrote a book on the subject for USAID entitled, “Money in Politics: A Guide to Increasing Transparency in Emerging Democracies” that was published in English, Spanish and Croatian.
Not sure that your question gets at the core of the money in politics problem in Hawaii. I think the disclosure reports are there, but the search engines are not sophisticated enough to produce usable search results without jumping through a lot of hoops.
Also, there are not any think tanks in Hawaii whose sole purpose is to monitor, report on, and critique campaign funding successes and failures. Lastly, I don’t believe taxpayer funded campaign funding is the magic bullet that some groups have been promoting.
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?
At the practical level of getting the job done and the information released, I suggest legislators be allowed to join, for example, Civil Beat’s lawsuits, and/or join in FOIA requests. As another way of expressing disaffection and disapproval of the present level of secrecy by departments, as a member of the Finance Committee I agreed this session to cut the Office of Information Practices budget because they were so slow in responding to the public’s need for information.
This practice could be continued but could be best resolved by taking up the issue at a constitutional convention. Also, the present proposal to increase the costs of obtaining copies of public records by three times the present amount is equally absurd and should be abandoned.
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?
This is a national problem and Hawaii is one of the fiscally worst-off states in the country. The problem was brought on by the Legislature itself decades ago by not allowing the employee retirement system to keep its earnings on its investments. Instead the Legislature siphoned off decades of investment earnings on returns of more than 8 percent into the General Fund. We only changed this behavior a few years ago, so we now owe only about $15 billion instead of $20 billion in unfunded liabilities.
The best way out of this is growth of the economy, which is never considered a priority of this government. The other solution is to have the best and wisest investments of ERS funds and keep the government’s hands off the realized profits.
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 voted to put this question to voters and let them decide the issue. As the counties are increasingly pushing back on the state getting into their property tax business, it looks increasingly doubtful that it may pass. This bill would increase the cost of housing and also increase the cost of rentals, hence the high cost of living in Hawaii would even be higher.
Probably a better solution would be to allow the 1 percent of our multibillion-dollar CIP budget (capitol improvement brick and mortar projects) to go to the Department of Education instead of to the arts — since we already have warehouses filled with commissioned art from these funds and not being utilized.
However, if it does pass voter scrutiny, there needs to be stipulations that:
• The funds must go to students and teachers at the school level.
• The legislature will not be allowed to “back funds out of” the DOE budget because of a windfall of new funding from the constitutional amendment.
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?
This is a problem in just about every community in Hawaii and needs to be addressed. The problem is that the state handles the tax side of the vacation rentals business and the counties handle the permitting process. The state and the counties are not talking to each other, so the state doesn’t know how many vacation rentals are permitted, and the city doesn’t know how many are paying their taxes.
Without exchanging this information, the state will never know how many units are illegal, and how many paying their taxes are “faking” that they are legal by the counties. This is a classical turf war between different levels of jurisdiction, so nothing gets done, particularly on Oahu where vocational rentals have proliferated.
9. Do you support or oppose holding a state constitutional convention? Why or why not?
I strongly support holding a constitutional convention. Without the right to initiative, referendum, and recall, a constitutional convention is the only option the people of Hawaii have to effectuate change in their government other than at the ballot box. The powers that be, however, fear a ConCon would possibly disenfranchise some of the vested powers that are now legislatively or constitutionally guaranteed and would upset the “balance of power” that is enjoyed by various agencies or voting blocs.
Though recent polls say that about 52 percent of people surveyed agree that a constitutional convention should be held whether Democrat or Republican responding, it will still be a steep climb to passage on Nov because blank votes still count as “no” votes. Making a blank ballot count as a “no” vote is largely the reason there has been no ConCon since 1978, but we shall see what happens this year.
Such issues as initiative, sunshine laws, freedom of information, and term limits for legislators could be discussed at the next constitutional convention.
10. What should Hawaii be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
As a planning variable to take into consideration, I think we’re doing the right thing by adding climate change considerations in our development plans and building permits. Proximity to the sea or shoreline are two key variables that will impact our visitor industry by dictating setback guidelines and structural integrity of building.
Regarding our reefs, the biggest imminent threat to our reefs has just been lessened and should be eliminated by the legislation we just passed banning oxybenzone in sunscreen. The reefs most endangered by this chemical are located in Hanauma Bay and off Waikiki and have been found to have high concentrations of oxybenzone.
According to the legislation that was championed by Hawaii Kai’s own Friends of Hanauma Bay (and Lisa Bishop) this chemical will be eliminated by 2021 after giving the cosmetic industry a three-year window to recalibrate its manufacturing of sunscreen with the many other safe and effective anti-UV ray ingredients.
11. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The most important issue facing us in Hawaii Kai is a series of losses of open space due to aggressive development or expiring Kamehameha Schools leases expiring. For example, we are about to lose our Hawaii Kai farmers in Kamilonui Valley and behind Kaiser High School in just seven years because their leases will not be renewed; ditto the Oahu Club and JAIMS (Japanese American Institute of Management Science) in a few years after that.
So far we have been told that these leases are at their negotiated extensions and will not be renewed. The fear is that a new subdivision where our farmers once lived, a condo where we used to swim, or study Japanese, will change Hawaii Kai as we know it today. Lastly the Great Lawn across from Maunalua Bay was originally designated for high rise development but the Honolulu City Council in 1973 rezoned the parcel as preservation land and the condos were put up against the mountain where the Mauna Luan and other condos now exist.
I note in my monthly newsletter to constituents if there are any development intentions for the Great Lawn. And my office has spoken with a leading community group to open discussions together with Kamehameha Schools about their long-range land-use plans for the Hawaii Kai properties.