Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 13 Primary 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 Amy Perruso, Democratic candidate for state House District 46, which includes Waipio Acres, Wahiawa, Whitmore Village, Waialua and Mokuleia. The other Democratic candidate is Cross Makani Crabbe.

Go to Civil Beat’s Election Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the Primary Election Ballot.

Candidate for State House District 46

Amy Perruso
Party Democratic
Age 53
Occupation State legislator
Residence Wahiawa, Oahu

Website

Community organizations/prior offices held

Hawaii State Representative since 2018; vice-chair, Education Committee of National Conference for State Legislatures; vice-chair, Hawaii State Judiciary Commission to Promote and Advance Civic Education; co-convener, Keiki Caucus; vice-chair, state House Agriculture Committee; executive director, Civic Education Council; vice-chair, state House Education Committee; Governor’s ESSA Task Force; secretary-treasurer, Hawaii State Teachers Association; Hawaii State Social Studies Content Panel – C3 Framework Standards; Hawaii representative, Social Studies Assessment Curriculum Initiative; project coordinator, Hawaii State High School Legislative Internship; Wahiawa Lions Club; Wahiawa-Waialua Rotary Club; Soroptimist International of Central Oahu; Hawaiian Civic Club of Wahiawa; American Association of University Women; AiKea; Democratic Party of Hawaii Education Caucus; Democratic Party of Hawaii Standing Central Committee.

1. What is the biggest issue facing your district, and what would you do about it?

Growing cynicism, connected to a lack of confidence in government, is the core issue facing my community. Because public policy is so important in addressing our shared issues, the recent revelations of wrongdoing and corrupt behavior by elected officials who have engaged in quid pro quo activities — and rarely seem to be held accountable — have led to the erosion of hope for the future.

In response to the growing malaise, I have joined others in pledging to reject all campaign contributions of more than $100 from corporate PACs and lobbyists, as well as from the executives of luxury and out-of-state developers, major landowners, hotel conglomerates, energy monopolies, multinational GMO seed companies and military contractors.

I am also working with my colleagues on campaign finance reform legislation and rules that would repeal the exemption of legislators from critical ethics guidelines. We cannot move forward together in aloha until we have restored trust.

2. Many people have talked about diversifying the local economy for many years now, and yet Hawaii is still heavily reliant on tourism. What, if anything, should be done differently about tourism and the economy?

We need to institute a global “green fee,” empower strict enforcement of state and county measures limiting vacation rentals, and use legislation to protect good jobs for our working class families. If we want to move toward a more just, sustainable and prosperous future in these islands, we need to move rapidly to invest in the vision we share while taxing heavily those economic drivers that bring little or no benefit to local community members.

Our investment in agriculture still hovers around .4% of the total budget, and the vast majority of state or public lands, which are properly understood as seized or stolen lands, are being leased at rock-bottom prices to multinational GMO seed companies who are not growing local food for local consumption.

Our public schools, where we should be prioritizing investment, still suffer from a dangerous backlog in unaddressed repair and maintenance projects and a teacher shortage crisis driven by our failure to provide decent pay. Most critically, we need to invest in our public workforce, as low pay and crushing workload demands have demoralized and gutted most departments, so that we can forward the common good.

3. An estimated 60% of Hawaii residents are struggling to get by, a problem that reaches far beyond low income and into the middle class, which is disappearing. What ideas do you have to help the middle class and working families who are finding it hard to continue to live here?

We need to work on three related areas: genuinely affordable housing, tax fairness and public education. Until now, the prevailing approach to housing has been to focus exclusively on building more “affordable” housing units by incentivizing developers, deregulating the housing market and exempting land from the public trust. However, to address the housing crisis, we need to shift power from people who profit from housing to people who depend on housing for shelter.

This means that we have to look at strategies that regulate Hawaii’s obscenely hot housing market and ground this market in our local economy rather than in national and international circuits of real estate investment. We can do this by implementing rent regulation, strengthening tenants’ rights so that renters can count on stable housing, and curbing speculation through targeted taxation.

We should tax exorbitant property wealth by taxing real estate investment trusts (REITs), levying property tax surcharges on nonowner-occupied luxury residences (with exemptions that protect our kupuna), and imposing a meaningful conveyance tax on luxury vacant homes. And we should be using these additional streams of tax revenue to fully fund our public schools, which provide the most important opportunities for economic, social and political equality.

4. Hawaii has the most lopsided Legislature in the country, with only one Republican in the Senate and only four 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?

One-party control obscures political division and creates space for political dishonesty, because so many elected representatives who call themselves Democrats have only declared allegiance to the Democratic Party for political purposes. Misrepresentation of this sort obscures political ideology, protecting it from public scrutiny and making it hard for the public to understand why the Legislature cannot enact laws that represent the values for which the public is voting, the values of the Democratic Party.

We need the Democratic Party to articulate a platform that is based on our shared values, and then to hold elected representatives accountable for actual support of this platform. Any bill proposed to the Legislature should require a full committee vote to defer, and all bills need to be heard and voted on in their initial respective committees. This might mean that the length of session would have to be extended and legislators paid for full-time work. But this will require legislators to take a position on issues without protection from committee chairs.

With better information about their legislators’ true political stances, citizens can make better informed decisions in elections. The problem is not the absence of Republican representation, but representation that is ideologically obscured.

5. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process? 

While I support the mechanisms of initiative, referendum and recall, in theory, because they have historically supported the development of more robust democratic practices and culture and have provided some safeguards of the public interest, I have seen all of these mechanisms abused by powerful corporate interests in recent decades in other states.

In our current context of extreme corporate power and incredible wealth gap between the rich and poor, I think it is unwise to make these mechanisms available until there are meaningful changes to this imbalance of economic power.

6. Thanks to their campaign war chests and name familiarity, incumbents are almost always re-elected in Hawaii legislative races. Should there be term limits for state legislators, as there are for the governor’s office and county councils? Why or why not?

I support reasonable term limits for state legislators, perhaps five or six terms for the House (10-12 years) and three or four terms in the Senate (10-14 years – their term lengths already vary). Serving in public office should not be a career, but we do need our elected representatives, those responsible for writing and passing laws that will govern the polity, to be well-prepared, knowledgeable and experienced so that they can be effective.

It usually takes at least one term for a senator or representative to fully understand and be able to use the process to further the common good, even when they have spent some time serving as staff. I have seen very poor results and demoralized legislators in other states who have very limited session lengths for lawmaking or extremely short term limits. They are not able to build a coherent and stable approach to problem-solving in their states, and, as a result, a great deal of decision-making falls to the governor or the courts.

Instituting reasonable term limits, along with a more robust session length, would help to curtail the entrenchment of power while facilitating good lawmaking and a stable balance of power.

7, Hawaii has recently experienced a number of prominent corruption scandals, prompting the state House of Representatives to appoint a commission tasked with improving government transparency through ethics and lobbying reforms. What will you do to ensure accountability at the Legislature? Are you open to ideas such as requiring the Sunshine Law and open records laws to apply to the Legislature or banning campaign contributions during session?

The emergence of recent corruption scandals was shocking but not surprising. There is a strong culture of pay-to-play at the Legislature, enabled in large part by the ways in which most candidates fund their elections.

Legislators across the ideological spectrum in Hawaii routinely take corporate donations from lobbyists, dismissing their impact on legislative decision-making and rationalizing that exchange as necessary for political survival and their ability to climb the political food chain. We need stronger public funding for elections, grounded in community support as evidenced in signatures, so that those who are actually willing to connect with and listen to community can be elected.

I support banning all campaign contributions, not just fund-raising events, during session and I think legislators should no longer be exempt from the Sunshine Law, open records law and ethics requirements.

8. How would you make the Legislature more transparent and accessible to the public? Opening conference committees to the public? Stricter disclosure requirements on lobbying and lobbyists? How could the Legislature change its own internal rules to be more open?

The most opaque dimension of our campaign finance system is that of reporting for lobbyist campaign contributions. Most lobbyists in Hawaii primarily represent huge corporate mainland and international interests with a few local “feel good” organizations included in their portfolios as part of the process of virtue-washing. They are not required to disclose which organization within their portfolio is funding which campaign donations, and, as a result, it is nearly impossible to track the extent to which policymaking is controlled by these powerful monied interests.

Lobbyists should have to track precisely which organization’s funds are supporting which candidate. There should also be rules put into place in the House, at least, to prevent a member who has received donations from interested parties appearing before a particular committee from chairing that committee. The chairs make most of the critical decisions in the committees, and if you remove the financial incentive to favor donors, the lawmaking will be much more likely to serve the common good.

9. Hawaii has seen a growing division when it comes to politics, development, health mandates and other issues. What would you do to bridge those gaps and bring people together in spite of their differences?

Since the passage of No Child Left Behind in 2001, civic and historical education in our public K-12 schools have been gutted, replaced by an overemphasis on standardized testing in math and language arts. Civic education is critical to help us understand how government is supposed to work, as well as identify when it fails, and why, and then to know what steps to take to change that through civic engagement.

Democracy and productive civic engagement also require accurate, reliable sources of information. Right now, our media ecosystem, dominated as it is by tech monopolies that gate-keep information and media corporations that conflate entertainment with actual journalism, needs to be regulated. I would support legislation to strengthen civic journalism through a system of public financing to fund independent, not-for-profit news organizations.

We must fully fund and support civic and historical education in our public schools. And civic education is a lifelong process, involving all of us. We, political leaders and elected officials, must actively work harder to listen, learn and serve. We have to have some very challenging conversations, listening to hear what our communities are saying in ways that are full of compassion and aloha for all involved.

10. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Hawaii. Be innovative, but be specific.

The most important idea for our time is not new but ancient, and has been most clearly articulated recently with Dr. Kamana Beamer and the ‘Āina Aloha Futures group. We need to move toward developing a circular, regenerative economy: one in which we develop energy, food and economic sovereignty that serves our purposes; that makes our society more just, prosperous and sustainable. We need to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation, and move toward an economic system that reduces resource consumption, recapturing resource materials from products and repurposing those materials for new use.

If we apply these principles to our food sources, we are quickly led to regenerative ocean farming, which has been identified as a key solution to climate change, with the power to sequester carbon on land and sea, reduce methane production in livestock, rebuild marine ecosystems, enrich soil and address the global plastics problem. A solid polyculture ocean farming system grows a mix of seaweeds (limu) and shellfish (pupu).

Ocean farming requires no outside inputs, making it the most sustainable form of food production on the planet while sequestering carbon and rebuilding reef ecosystems. We need to invest not only in regenerative agriculture but also regenerative aquaculture.

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