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 Tom Brower, the Democratic candidate for the state House of Representatives District 22, which covers Waikiki and Ala Moana. There is one other candidate, Republican Kathryn Henski-Stark.
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?
Individual legislators do “go against leadership” more often than you think. For starters, I have pursued nonlegislative channels to address my community’s problems, which they haven’t always agreed with. Furthermore, many leadership priorities are based on larger group discussions.
Admittedly, when leadership asks about my legislative priorities, I tell them homelessness and housing — but none of the reform ideas you listed. Are new laws needed for such reforms? I, like some others, try to conduct myself using my own internal compass. I think the media attention has been effective in discouraging less ethical behaviors among elected officials. Consequence is a great teacher.
Furthermore, it is the nature of politics/democracy that not everyone can be pleased all the time. People seem to think the system is “corrupt” when things don’t go their way, but it’s “not corrupt” when it does. In reality, “Politics is the art of compromise.”
My advice is to not give up advocating for what you believe in— its time will come. (Examples: John Radcliffe, Rev. Bob Nakata, and “The Father of Safe Zones.”)
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Yes. The citizens’ initiative process is meant to address the problem of government action that does not reflect the majority of the people’s will. Issues that are controversial, such as legalizing gambling or recreational marijuana, or routinely disregarded, such as community noise control, would be suitable for this.
Nonprofit VOTE and the U.S. Elections Project ranked Hawaii in the bottom five states in voter turnout for the 2016 election. We need to look for new ways to get people excited about politics. I hope that the citizens’ initiative will encourage more people to get informed, participate in the legislative process, and take part in shaping our future.
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?
Some readers may consider Civil Beat, a highly read news site, “lopsided” in its political bent. Perhaps the inclusion of more conservative leaning articles would inspire more acceptance for the Republican perspective. In other words, be the change you want to see.
Within the Legislature, there is more of an exchange of ideas than people realize. Even members of a particular party do not see eye to eye on every issue. And while some issues may be labeled as Republican or Democrat, many state/community issues are truly nonpartisan and require collaboration across party lines to be solved.
I’m a relatively conservative Democrat who is sometimes at odds with overly liberal agendas. I get along with everyone on both sides of the aisle. My district was previously represented by a Republican before I was elected, and I don’t isolate Republican constituents.
If Democrats have more influence, it may be because the majority of voters feel that Democrats best represent their views and vote them into office. Voters can correct that imbalance later this year. Also, the Republican Party seems to disenfranchise contemporary thinkers instead of learning to embrace them.
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?
This is currently a hot topic in the congressional race, the one Kaniela Ing is in.
Yes if it brings more transparency, though I feel the current reporting amount is sufficient. The issue is more about third parties spending unlimited amounts of money for or against particular candidates. Keep in mind that creating more laws makes us feel good but does not always result in meaningful reform.
Again, I think the media has been effective in discouraging less ethical behaviors among elected officials.
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?
Reasonable requests for public records should be available and inexpensive to access, especially when it serves the public. (There needs to be clear criteria defining what’s “reasonable.”) Part of the problem is the people who take advantage of this and make an unlimited number of unreasonable requests.
Another part of the reason some information is difficult to access is less malevolent: State agencies with antiquated systems for record keeping make procuring information difficult. We really need to move into the 21st century, away from paper and filing cabinets and into cloud storage. As government modernizes itself, hopefully we can see some improvements in this area and others.
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?
Ensuring the long-term viability of EUTF and ERS is our biggest budgetary challenge. These benefits are guaranteed by the state constitution and must be honored. While more needs to be done, I am optimistic that we are on the right track.
Over the past seven years, the Legislature has passed several key bills, which need time before their effects can be felt: Act 163 (2011) reduced the amount of pensions for new employees hired after 6/30/12 and increased the age at which they can begin receiving their pensions. Act 268 (2013) established a schedule to phase in increasing public employer contributions. Act 017 (2017) updates the ERS laws and addresses the issue of pension “spiking.”
We should continue monitoring the outcomes and be open to making further changes, as needed.
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?
Our public schools need proper funding to help them overcome the multitude of challenges they face in student achievement. A key part of this is attracting and retaining qualified teachers, which HSTA says has been problematic. As the son of a former public school teacher, I have seen firsthand the sacrifices that teachers make for their students and what a difference a qualified and devoted teacher can make in the lives of struggling and disadvantaged students.
I voted for it because it is a less burdensome tax to fund education. Those with investment property — many of whom reside outside Hawaii — can better bear the surcharge and ought to positively contribute to our education system. I appreciate that homeowners will not be affected.
If a majority of voters approves this ballot measure, the Legislature will work out how the surcharge will be implemented next session. I look forward to seeing the details.
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?
According to 2014 statistics, there are an estimated 22,000 vacation rentals that are not registered and paying the hotel room tax or general excise tax, potentially costing us about $40 million per year in lost revenue.
When I chaired the tourism committee, my goal was to ensure all stakeholders were on an equal playing field. There needs to be regulatory framework in place to ensure that all transient accommodations are held to the same standard in terms of consumer protection and tax obligations. The problem is confounded by the city’s decision to stop issuing permits in 1989. Community outcry has thwarted proposals reconsidering the 30-year-old decision.
On the state side, we looked into going around their legal status because we need to immediately address the economic parity and consumer safety issues until the larger issue can be resolved. I support having Airbnb register as a tax collection agent to collect and remit GET and TAT on the operators’ behalf.
9. Do you support or oppose holding a state constitutional convention? Why or why not?
This November, voters will have a chance to decide on holding a con con to explore changes to our constitution, with specific proposals coming before them the following election.
I have supported the con con though I have reservations: Supporters say it will get money out of politics and create laws people want, which can improve democracy and government.
Even if we can educate everyone on what they would be voting on, get past the vague/legalese wording, and prevent special interests from “hijacking” the agenda, there will be unintended consequences, some of which will take time to be realized. People may not understand the implications of actions or changes—like how creating new offices will grow the size and cost of government.
Lastly, it could cost $7.6 million, which is based on the costs of the 1978 convention but adjusted for inflation.
Can this be achieved another way? We can put more questions on the ballot. I have consistently introduced legislation for my constituents, though most are not successful. (This too is a consequence of living in a democracy. Too many cooks in the kitchen.)
10. What should Hawaii be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
I believe the climate has always been changing; we’re just becoming more aware of it.
If we want to make a bigger impact in reducing the effects of climate change, we should be focusing on air travel pollution. Aviation produces about 2 percent of the world’s man-made emissions of carbon dioxide from airplanes burning fuel, the manufacturing of aircraft and the construction of airport infrastructure, and the emissions generated by the production of energy used in airport buildings. In addition, other emissions — like nitrogen oxides and water vapor — have a multiplier effect when released at higher altitudes.
This is expected to increase with the increase in air travel. I don’t know how many “environmentalists” who fly regularly actually research which airlines have the lowest carbon emissions or book with airlines that offer carbon offsets, which can be purchased to remove the amount of carbon from the atmosphere. Cost seems to be the biggest motivator. Again, we can create laws, but true reform won’t happen without a change of heart.
11. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
I regularly receive complaints about the homeless living on/and preventing usage of our beach parks, sidewalks and bus stops; trashing or vandalizing the landscaping; harassing passersby; publicly drinking or doing drugs, among other related health and safety concerns. Not all homeless individuals want to be housed and/or employed. It is not “compassionate” to allow them to stay on the streets. Enforcement of laws and park rules have been lax.
We need realistic solutions that include both compassionate and “tough love” strategies working simultaneously. Since 2010, I have been advocating as the “Father of Safe Zones” for government designated areas for the homeless to camp, as a temporary, cost-effective solution until long-term alternatives (like more affordable housing) are implemented. Otherwise, there will continue to be illegal camping everywhere.
I also strongly support expanding Housing First for the chronic homeless, making public restrooms available 24/7 and creating a vagrancy law to protect the public’s immediate health and safety.