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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 David Tarnas, the Democratic candidate for the state House of Representatives District 7, which covers North Kona, North Kohala, South Kohala. There is one other candidate, Republican Tom Belekanich.
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 level of public distrust of the state Legislature is troubling and can only be improved by making the Legislature more transparent and accountable. When I served in the Legislature 20 years ago, I supported efforts to make it easier for citizens on neighbor islands to track legislation and testify, as well as changes to the House rules to make the legislative process more collaborative and less autocratic.
Now, using available technology, I would advocate for live streaming all floor sessions and committee hearings, allowing video testimony for committee hearings, and archiving of all these videos. I support strong enforcement to ensure lobbyists register and report their clients and compensation before they engage in any advocacy efforts with legislators, even while the legislature is not in session. I would support a ban on fundraising during session and more frequent reporting of campaign contributions by candidates.
I would also support a zero-tolerance policy on sexual harassment at the Legislature and would support the public disclosure of the names and offenses of any disciplined members of the Legislature.
2. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
No, I would not support creating a statewide citizen’s initiative process. A representative democracy in which elected representatives make policy decisions is better than one based on the popular vote through a citizen’s initiative. I support Hawaii’s constitutional framework of a representative democracy with a citizen’s Legislature.
Legislators are part-time, and it is expected that each legislator is active in their professional and community life. This is specifically designed to make the legislators more informed and involved in policy matters that affect the general public. If legislators do their job right, they make carefully considered decisions based on detailed research and analysis after listening to all sides of the issue.
This is in contrast to an initiative which can result in a popular vote in which people base their decision on what is popular at the time or in support of a position that is advertised most effectively. I would work to make legislators more responsive and informed by strengthening the public’s role in policymaking by increasing public participation in the legislative process through video testimony, live streaming of all committee hearings, and regular hearings on neighbor islands during legislative recess days and interims.
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?
When I served in the Legislature before, I was considered an independent reform Democrat. I did not always vote the way the Speaker or Majority Leader wanted the Democrats to vote. I advocated for changes in the rules of the House to make internal deliberations more transparent and less autocratic. I may not agree 100 percent with the policies, platforms and resolutions passed by the Democratic Party and will exercise my independence in voting for what I believe is right and in the interests of my constituents.
When it is needed, I will not hesitate to seek a bipartisan coalition to pass a bill. I am committed to be a legislator who is accessible to my constituents during session and the interim so that I can hear their concerns and be held accountable for my decisions and votes. In this way, I would be effective representing all my constituents whether they identify individually with a political party or not.
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?
Hawaii received a score of 69 on the 2015 State Integrity Investigation, placing us as fourth-best in the country, behind Alaska, California and Connecticut. We can do better. I would propose and support legislation or rule-making to require an annual review of all lobbyists at the legislature to ensure they are registered and make timely reports of financial disclosures; ensure that violations of state lobbying laws receive timely judgments and financial penalties that are fair and appropriate; provide financial and staff support to the Ethics Commission and Campaign Spending Commission to reduce the backlog of appeals; and ensure that the legislature does not violate its own rules of financial disclosure and internal procedures.
I would support more frequent campaign finance reporting during the election cycle, especially before the primary. I voluntarily report information on all my political donors, even those who give less than $100. During this election cycle, all of my contributors have been individual donors. I will be very selective about accepting any donations from corporations or organizations to make sure the values of that organization are ones that I share.
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?
I have always been a strong advocate of public disclosure of public records. As a legislator, I will be a strong advocate on behalf of the public for making any public records requested available whenever possible. I disagree with delays in responding to public records requests, and feel that the fees should only be to pay for the costs of copying and a reasonable amount to help cover the staff time to research, gather and copy the documents.
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 state needs to keep up-to-date on payments for its unfunded liabilities including pension and health obligations for public workers. These obligations are based on contracts with government employees and the Legislature is not being financially prudent if they delay payments to these funds. I would oppose legislative efforts to raid these funds to pay for government services. We need to be honest about the cost of government and meet our contractual obligations.
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 have a strong record as a candidate and former vice chairman of the House Education Committee of supporting efforts to improve public education through better funding to teachers and classroom support. I plan to vote for this proposed constitutional amendment in the general election, but feel that the measure is flawed because it does not specify the amount, exact purpose, or address the issue that property tax is the main source of revenue for the county governments, rather than state government.
This constitutional amendment is a piecemeal tax policy change which instead should be done as part of a comprehensive tax policy reform by the legislature or in a Constitutional Convention. If the constitutional amendment passes, I would advocate that the money go to teachers and the classroom, not administration, and that the counties receive a greater share of the Transient Accommodations Tax to make up for the amount the state is taking through this measure. I would also advocate for comprehensive tax reform using the recommendations in the recent Hawaii Tax Review Commission report and the recent study by the state-county study group on the TAT.
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?
Unfortunately, the current rental housing inventory in Hawaii County is very limited making it difficult for prospective renters to find anything. Because so many homeowners are not renting out to long term renters, but rather renting to short term vacation rentals, this further restricts the rental housing inventory. Vacation rentals are not appropriate for many residential neighborhoods and the county must enforce the existing zoning laws to assure vacation rentals are properly permitted.
The state needs to make sure vacation rentals are properly permitted and comply with all applicable state laws including payment of General Excise Tax and Transient Accommodations Tax. I know the Hawaii County Council is considering additional legislation to better regulate short term vacation rentals and I have encouraged the council members to take action on this issue as a top priority.
9. Do you support or oppose holding a state constitutional convention? Why or why not?
I would advocate for a constitutional convention to reorganize the statewide school district into school districts in each county with elected school boards in each county school district. The constitutional convention would also be the appropriate forum to reorganize what is the responsibility of the state government and the county government in order to give counties more “home rule” responsibilities. This reorganization of responsibilities would also require a restructuring of our tax code to make sure these newly organized government responsibilities are properly funded.
10. What should Hawaii be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs?
Climate change will cause increased drought, sea level rise, flooding, coastal erosion, groundwater inundation, destructive storms, and threats to our native flora and fauna. I would support legislation to strictly limit construction of new seawalls and provide economic incentives to relocate development away from the shoreline including mandatory disclosure by realtors to potential buyers about the risk of sea level rise, flooding and groundwater inundation. I would support legislation to mandate inclusion of sea level rise in County General Plans, local Community Development Plans and Environmental Impact Statements done for development projects.
I would urge Congress to change the National Flood Insurance Program policies to discourage owners from rebuilding damaged buildings in the same vulnerable location. I would implement the recommendations of Hawaii’s “Natural Disaster Economic Recovery Strategy.”
I would also advocate legislation to establish a statewide system of marine protected areas, protect uhu and other herbivorous fish, and better manage near-shore recreational and commercial fishing; improve soil erosion control to reduce coastal runoff into near-shore coral reef ecosystems; increase protection of watersheds to reduce runoff and loss of habitat; and increase efforts to detect and prevent the spread of invasive species.
11. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The most pressing issue facing my district is to support sustainable economic development in tandem with an improved educational system. I would advocate for legislation that supports economic development to provide meaningful employment and a healthy quality of life for community members. This legislation would help small business be successful and strengthen the island’s core industries of agriculture, tourism, ocean recreation, astronomy, and construction.
I would propose legislation to help diversify the island economy with new and emerging knowledge-based industries and resource-based industries, including renewable energy, marine biotechnology, ocean science and technology, space technology, and environmental technology. And I would support legislation to strengthen public education and workforce training offering lifelong learning for the community. The statewide school system needs to be decentralized so more decision-making authority rests in the school or school complexes. I will work to reduce the amount of money spent on administration and reallocate this money into the classroom where there is the greatest impact on the students. Rural schools need extra support since the cost to attract and maintain teachers is even higher than in urban areas. Charter schools also need to get equal funding per student as other public schools.