A Trifecta Proposal For Rail – More money, less traffic, and less tourist sprawl  “Hooser – Policy & Politics”

Neighbor-island residents should not be forced to shoulder the costs of the Oahu rail system.  This project initiated and managed (term used loosely) by the City and County of Honolulu needs to remain the responsibility of that County.  Raiding neighbor-island Transient Accommodations Tax (TAT) revenue, or expanding the General Excise Tax (GET) surcharge statewide in order to bail out a poorly run project in Honolulu, is simply not acceptable.
I assume, perhaps naively so that neighbor-island legislators in both the House and Senate would be united in their opposition to any attempt to go down this path.  A vote in support would be a very blunt and effective instrument that political opponents would gleefully use to effectively bludgeon neighbor-island incumbent legislators running for reelection in 2018.
Public Transportation 101 teaches that for trains and bus systems to work properly they must be reliable, regular and convenient AND that driving a car must be less desirable and more expensive.
The number one source of new revenue to support the completion and expansion of the Honolulu rail system should come from rental cars.  In 2011 the legislature increased the Rental Motor Vehicle Surcharge (RMVS) by $4.50 per day, going from $3 to $7.50 and generating approximately $60 million per year.  For various budget reasons, this additional charge was only in place for one year.
Anyone into policy and politics would be well served to review the Department of Taxations annual report. – http://files.hawaii.gov/tax/stats/stats/annual/16annrpt.pdf
Raising car rental fees and dedicating that money to public transportation makes sense.  There is a direct correlation between the number of tourist rental cars on the roads at any particular point in time, and the amount of traffic on the highway that local residents have to deal with.
Week after week we read headlines about how well the visitor industry is doing.  The flip-side to that success is our highways and our beaches are choked with both the extra people and the extra cars.   Increasing this daily fee by $4.50 or even $10 per day would have minimal impact on visitors choosing to travel to Hawaii and could easily generate $100 million a year in support of the rail and other public transportation options.
The impact of a large increase in the daily car rental fee means either the visitor will not rent a car and instead stay within Waikiki or other visitor destination areas, or they will use public transportation (rail and bus), or they will rent a car and pay the increased fee.  All choices represent a win for local residents.
According to TripAdvisor the current cost of renting a car in Waikiki ranges between $29 and $83 per day.  Will an additional $4.50 have any negative impact at all?  I don’t think so.  Certainly when the fee was raised by $4.50 for one year in 2011 the sky did not fall and there was no discernible negative impacts on tourism.
The vast majority of funds generated by this fee would come from the visitor industry.  Yes, local residents travel between islands and rent cars as well, but the lions share of the impact would be shifted to the tourism industry.
And there is legal precedent for increasing the daily car rental fee and utilizing those funds for purposes other than those directly related to the car rental industry. The Department of Transportation in 2011 stated,  “The additional $4.50 of each surcharge, which was formerly collected to fund car rental facility upgrades at state airports, will now be deposited directly into the state general fund to assist with the…state budget and the local economy.”
On August 28th, the Hawaii State Legislature will convene a “special session” to deal with the question of how to bail out the City and County for their mismanagement of the rail system.
Hopefully they will consider and pass a measure granting to the Counties legal authority to increase the daily car rental fee and dedicate those funds to supporting public transportation at the County level.  At the minimum they should pass a statewide increase and allocate the funds County by County for public transportation.  In no case should neighbor-island residents have to subsidize the bad decisions made by the City and County of Honolulu.
Note: The above is a slightly edited version of a “Policy & Politics” column that was first published in The Garden Island Newspaper on August 16th, 2017
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Brace yourselves, Primaries are coming. “Hooser – policy and politics”

From a local political perspective, all hell will break loose in the 2018 elections.  Either that or the heavens will open up, depending on the lens in which you view the universe.

Trust me, 2018 will be an election year unlike any other. If you are a potential candidate and not already in motion and running, you will soon be left in the dust.

2018 will be a year for political opportunity, as an inordinate number of seats will be “open” with no incumbent occupying the space.  Open seats are rare and will attract attention from newcomers and existing office holders seeking to “move up”.  Former legislators seeking to reenter the political world will also be eying these seats wondering if their time has passed, or whether they still have it.

At the top of the ticket is the governor’s race, and the rumor mill seems to have narrowed it down to either Mayor Bernard Carvalho or Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa as the most likely candidates to oppose Governor Ige.

Mayor Carvalho is “termed out” (cannot run for re-election) and the local speculation is that former Representative and now Councilmember Derek Kawakami, Parks Director Lenny Rapozo, and the present Council Chair Mel Rapozo are all eying a run for that seat.

Because Council seats on Kauai are limited to 4 two-year terms, both Councilmember Rapozo and Yukimura are also “termed out” and thus with Kawakami running for Mayor, there will likely be 3 open seats on the Kauai County Council in 2018.

Should Congresswoman Colleen Hanabusa decide to challenge Governor Ige, her seat in the First Congressional District would become “open” as well.  Existing Oahu-based Representatives, Senators and Councilmembers running for this highly coveted position will create still more “open seats” and the cycle will continue, creating additional opportunities for newcomers.

State Senators are especially inclined to jump for an open congressional seat when the opportunity occurs in the middle of their own 4-year term as are not required to resign to run for a federal office.

The resignation of Lieutenant Governor (LG) Shan Tsutsui to seek election to the office of Maui Mayor, even further accelerates the creation of more open seats and thus a catalyst for change in 2018.

Oahu Senator Jill Tokuda and Big Island Senator Josh Green have already announced their intent to run for the open LG seat.  Senator Espero has also expressed an interest in running for LG. This will create opportunities for House members to “move up” and new candidates to then seek election to the newly opened House seats.   First time candidates might seek election to the Senate seats or LG position as well.

At least two Council seats will be opening up on Maui as Councilmember Elle Cochran and Don Guzman have both announced their desire to seek election to the office of Mayor, making that race a hotly contested 3-way contest. Termed out and vacating the Maui Mayors’ seat is Alan Arakawa who has announced his candidacy too for what will be a crowded LG race.

The early resignation of the LG even further increases the potential for change as the State Constitution calls for the position to be awarded to the Senate President, Kauai Senator Ron Kouchi or to the Speaker of the House Representative Scott Saiki, if declined by Senator Kouchi.  If Rep Saiki declines, then Attorney General Doug Chin will become the new LG. If the Attorney General declines, then it falls to another Director…etc.

If either Senator Kouchi or Representative Saiki accepted the position, then that would set off a process whereby the Governor would appoint their replacement.  That process could possibly create even more open seats and/or additional appointments.

The Primary election is August 11, 2018, just one year away.

In Hawaii, a state where Democratic Party affiliation dominates elections, the Primary is everything.  With the exception of nonpartisan county races, the General election is considered by many to be almost an afterthought.

New candidates must hit the ground soon if they intend to run a winning campaign in 2018.  Incumbents and those with existing name recognition may be able to delay for a few more months, but serous candidates have already started serious campaigns.

Note: First published on August 9th in The Garden Island Newspaper “Policy and Politics” regular weekly column.

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Organizing the Senate – Inside baseball   “Hooser – Policy and Politics”

Question: What’s the most important number in the Hawaii State Senate?

Answer: 13

There are 25 Senators, 13 is a majority and majority rules.  There are 51 members in the House, thus 26 is the magic number there.

Any Senator who has 12 solid friends can basically run the show.  13 votes decide who will be Senate President, the Chair of Ways and Means and the rules of the Senate.

A core majority of 13 Senators determine the composition of, and consequently “control” a majority of the seats/votes on every committee,and thus control which Bills pass and which do not.

The process is not pretty, and if we replace the word “control” by the word “manage” it is somewhat more palatable.  To be clear, each Senator is technically independent, but within the core majority bonds are tight and loyalty to “leadership” is the norm.

“Organization” can happen at any time but typically occurs to some degree at the end of every two year election cycle.

When the Hawaii Senate “organizes” it means 13 or more Senators agree as to “who gets what” in terms of committee assignments, leadership positions and other benefits and trappings of power and position (office size/location, staffing budgets, parking spots etc).

Negotiations (i.e. horse trading for positions and power) will occur between individuals and between “factions” or small groups of Senators who have banded together out of friendship, ideology or pragmatism (survival).

Behind the scenes, labor unions, business organizations and a host of professional lobbyists, insiders and political operatives will be leaning hard on the Senate organizers, attempting to influence the outcome and protect their own particular special interests.

The two most powerful positions in any legislative body would be its administrative head (Senate President and House speaker) and its “money chairs” (Senate Ways and Means and House Finance committees).

Historically these two positions would be divided between two different factions, thus “balancing the power,” rather than allowing it to be concentrated in two individuals from the same faction.

The recent “re-organization” of these positions in both the House and Senate does not appear to reflect this important power-balancing dynamic.

Following election cycles or other events (deaths, scandal etc.) that disrupt the vital 13-member core, there will often be an entirely new “leadership” structure established and all/most positions impacted.

During such a full “re-org,” Senators who are part of an initial 13-member “core majority” will be rewarded by a leadership position and/or a committee chairmanship. The Senator who occupies that vital #13 swing vote position often achieves inordinate benefits due to his/her “leverage” (more about “leverage” in a future column).

Note: While 13 is the magic number, most “re-orgs” seek the insurance and stability that a 14 or 15 member “core majority” will offer.

Those Senators not part of the “core majority” MAY get a vice-chair position, but otherwise will get assigned to various committees albeit in minority roles.  They will not have positions in “leadership,” they will not Chair a committee of any consequence and they will often have the smallest offices in the less desirable locations. These Senators, of course,retain the important power and responsibility of being a “watch dog” that comes with any minority position.  And they, of course, will continuously be seeking to form their own 13-member core majority, and if/when they are able to do so, there will be another “re-org.”

Consequently, each member of the core majority of 13 presently in power owes their personal position of power and status to the other 12.  If any of the 13 loses an election or otherwise leaves the leadership faction, the entire leadership structure collapses and a new “re-org” will occur.

Thus arises the sometimes corrupting desire to “protect and reward your members” in order to preserve the entire leadership structure.

“Protecting your members” most often comes in the form of shielding them from having to vote on controversial issues.

“Rewards” may come in the form of favorable treatment for legislation the members are championing, media attention, Capital Improvement Projects (CIP) and/or Grant-In-Aid (GIA) allocations.

Re-organizations are a reality of any legislative body.  They can be executed in ways that benefit the public interest, or in ways that are detrimental to that same interest.

A thoughtful, integrity-based reorganization process takes into consideration the needs of ALL members finding positions of value for each, thus minimizing dissension and maximizing talents – to the benefit of the public and our democratic system.

NOTE: A slightly edited version of the above was first printed on August 2, 2017 in The Garden Island Newspaper

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Putting our opponents on blast “Hooser -Policy and Politics”

Almost daily someone I run into on the street, at the airport or perhaps at the dog park will lament the demise of civility in public discourse. They often are filled with a deep angst over the tension and sometimes anger tinged conversations they view on social media, television and often even on the bumper sticker of the car preceding them in traffic.

I agree, each of us should take a deep breathe and think about what we say, or do, or type onto a key board as we act on or react to the issues and circumstances we confront each day.

Before we “put someone on blast,” whether on social media, at a public hearing, or perhaps in a letter-to the-editor, we need to first hit the pause button and reflect.

Tip: Resist and avoid at all costs snarkiness, sarcasm, name calling, personal denigration, questioning of integrity, personal intentions or references to physical appearance.

Too often, too many of us personalize the issue and attack the messenger rather than the message. Just because a person supports a real estate development for example, does not mean they are “in bed with the developers.” They might be. But they might also simply see the world through a different lens. They may actually believe that the development would yield community benefits exceeding the negatives the opponents present.

They may be wrong in their position, but they are not necessarily bad or corrupt.

I believe that different people, smart people with good hearts and noble intentions, can look at the same facts and circumstances and come to different conclusions.

We can disagree vehemently and we should, but our target should be the facts, the circumstances and the expected outcomes, and not the person. If the person takes actions that we believe are inept, unprofessional or harmful to the public good, then we can and should call them out publicly on their actions but not question what is in their heart.

In the context of government and public policy, my experience leads me to believe that most in leadership positions (elected or appointed) are trying to “do the right thing” as determined via the lens of their own individual life experience.

Yes, there is outright corruption and there are people in positions of power, who in my opinion, have a flawed moral compass. But the majority of individuals who hold public office I believe are in fact good people who perhaps just look at the world differently.

The refrain that “all politicians are corrupt” runs deep through the trenches of both the left and the right. I suspect many will disagree, and perhaps loudly so, with my belief that most in public office are trying to do the right thing.

Yes, corruption in the literal sense exists but I believe it is the exception not the rule. Mostly I would consider the problem one of institutional corruption and having a political system built upon the inherently corrupting and increasing demand of campaign donations.

The answer to our quest for a better government is not the personal and public denigration of those who hold public office or who might disagree with us, but rather in confronting the issue at hand with facts, persistence and professionalism. Sometimes being loud and having great numbers in attendance is important, but always the message should be presented to address the issue and not tear down the person.

If the elected official still does not respond to reason, facts, and community sentiment, then find a candidate to run against him or her. Or better yet, run yourself.

NOTE: The above column was first published in The Garden Island Newspaper, July 2017


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Does the intent of a politician/leader matter? “Hooser -Policy and Politics”

Gov. David Ige is a standup-guy. He is as honest as the day is long and a genuinely thoughtful, caring, hardworking governor who puts policy ahead of politics.

Am I pleased with his lack of leadership on matters pertaining to industrial agriculture? Absolutely not. But do I think he is in the pocket of Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta and Dow Chemical? Again, absolutely not.

Gov. Ige is a good and honest man who, like most of us, relies on others for advice. In this case and on this issue, that would be his Director of Agriculture Scott Enright.

Mr. Enright and his agency, I believe, suffer from “regulatory capture.” This happens when an agency stops serving the broader interests of the general public, becoming instead a protector of the industry it is responsible to regulate.

Similar situations occur at other agencies and departments at all levels of government. Regulatory capture is a real phenomenon and a strategy pursued by all industry sectors. Google it.

The governor is obviously a busy man and cannot possibly become an expert or even adequately informed on every issue. He must rely on the input of others but at the end of the day, he is responsible for the decision.

I served side by side in the state Senate with then-Sen. Ige for eight years. We were part of the same Senate faction that ultimately came to be known as “the chess club.” I know him as a likable and honest man with an engineering background, an affinity for technology and as a strong advocate for public education.

While we did not always agree, I believed then as I do now that his decisions were always integrity-based and never politically motivated.

I am hopeful that as his experience in the incredibly demanding job continues to grow, Gov. Ige will broaden and diversify his team of advisers, lean more toward the side of protecting health and the environment, and rely less on the advice of industry advocates acting in the role of government regulators.

There are many in elected office whose intentions might be righteous but their reasoning faulty, resulting in decisions that cause tangible harm to people and the environment.

The failure by the governor to take action and push forth a ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos, a known neurotoxin, is one clear example. Another is the Legislature’s continued reluctance to cap interest rates on pay day lending. Both are examples of leadership decisions being made without ill intentions perhaps, but resulting in people being egregiously and physically harmed nonetheless.

At the end of the day, and more importantly at the end of an election cycle, what matters are the impacts of the actions and decisions that are made, not the motivation or intent behind them.

NOTE: The above column was first published in The Garden Island newspaper, July 2017


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Being too busy to help is not an option. “Hooser -Policy and Politics”

“Democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…” Winston Churchill to House of Commons 1947.

So if democracy is the best form of government, why is it not working? Why are so many of us unhappy with the status quo?

More importantly, what must we do to make our government work better?

The answer I believe, is individual citizens working collectively to take back their government.

Historically and at all levels, government decision-makers both appointed and elected are predominantly influenced (some would say controlled) by big business.

Government leaders will profess to care about ordinary people and some will endeavor to work in support of them, but big business is ALWAYS there, knocking on the door of policy-makers, protecting their profits and expanding their opportunities.

But ordinary people united in purpose have the power to knock even louder, to take back their government, protect and enhance their livelihood, their health, and their environment-especially here in Hawaii.

We are blessed to live in a place small enough that local citizen based control of state and county government is entirely possible.

Regardless of the U. S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” decision allowing unlimited corporate spending to influence elections, in small communities like ours that advantage can be overcome.

In Hawaii, especially at the County and State levels, districts are small enough that voters can actually know personally the candidate they vote for.

But it takes work.

A healthy democracy requires active civic engagement which requires time, energy and commitment.

It is not enough to show up (or not) every two years on election day and vote.

Pounding out pithy messages of righteous indignation on Facebook or twitter in the wee hours of the morning won’t do it either.

To win, to truly take back and own your government takes real work.  It means making civics a part of your daily life, following the issues, attending community meetings, submitting testimony and getting to know your government leaders on a personal level.

It means not being “too busy”.  Yes, I know that’s what you are thinking.

Trust me, we are all “too busy” and that excuse does not cut it anymore.

The world is going to hell-in-a-hand-basket and being too busy to join together with others to help fix it is not an option.

So please, get involved and take ownership and responsibility for your government today. Find and join an organization that has an active civic engagement component.

There are many local organizations who desperately need citizen involvement and would welcome your call. Get involved with your neighborhood association, your political Party of choice, or use this handy search engine to find organizations by zip code: https://actionnetwork.org/groups/search

Join with friends and neighbors and organize a meeting in your neighborhood with your local elected leaders about issues that are important to you.

The reality is we can’t afford to wait.  Our democracy is not healthy and it is up to all of us to make it well again.

NOTE: A slightly edited version of the above column was first published in The Garden Island newspaper on July 26, 2017

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Affordable Housing – When Bold Ideas Collide With The Status Quo “Hooser -Policy and Politics”

Many longstanding issues facing our community seem to be intractable but of course they are not.

What is intractable is reconciling the bold ideas with the political reality.

When faced with the political realities of competing interests, inevitably those strategies and plans that start out as a bold vision with potential for transformative and positive change eventually whither away and die, yielding to the dominant political power currently in place.

One of the most difficult issues facing our community is the lack of truly affordable housing.

Housing is considered “affordable” when a household spends less than 30 percent of their income on shelter and utilities and according to County statistics more than half of all Kauai renters and homeowners do not now live in affordable housing.  An individual earning $15 per hour (Hawaii’s current minimum wage of $9.25) and working 40 hours per week should pay no more than $720 per month for rent and utilities.   And with median annual incomes hovering around $62,000,  $400,000 to $500,000 homes are not affordable for the vast majority of Kauai residents.

Thousands of new affordable housing units, for purchase and for rent, are needed now.

The County and the State could if they had the political fortitude, today take extraordinary and bold action to aggressively develop truly affordable housing, in appropriate locations adjacent to existing urban areas and preserve this housing in perpetuity.

On Kauai’s west side, the State of Hawaii owns over 10,000 acres of land with a significant portion of it near existing urban areas.  Currently leased primarily to the large agrochemical companies, some of this land could easily be rehabilitated and converted to residential use.  Small truly affordable family farms for local residents could buffer the existing residential areas from the larger agricultural operations.

In Lihue, there are potentially thousands of undeveloped yet properly zoned residential house-lots located across from the airport, behind Walmart and near Hanamaulu.  The Grove Farm Land Company has a virtual monopoly on land suitable for residential development in and around Lihue.  Rather than accept the land-banking currently occurring, the County could pass carrot/stick laws (tax incentives or dis-incentives and or density allowances) to motivate the development of this land for affordable housing.  Or, the County could purchase the land at fair market value, increase the density as needed to lower the per unit cost to an affordable level and then partner with private affordable housing developers to actually build the units.

In every part of our island there are suitable lands available but controlled and land-banked by a handful of corporations most of whom’s history extend back to the plantation days.

The County and the State both have the power to borrow money at the very lowest rates needed to purchase the land and provide the essential infrastructure.  The increased property taxes resulting from the new developments could be used to pay the costs of that borrowing.

Similarly the County controls the land-use and permitting process, and arguably the cost and availability of water and sewer facilities.

To help pay for affordable housing the County could increase the property tax on Hotels and Resorts, on large undeveloped residentially zoned lands, and on the vacant homes of absentee owners/investors.

The land base on Kauai is dominated by literally a handful of large landowners.  The County could simply draw a line in the sand, implement a moratorium and refuse to approve any new re-zoning of any agricultural lands at all, except for 100% truly affordable housing projects located in existing urban areas.

All of the above are potential solutions that could dramatically alleviate the lack of affordable housing on Kauai.  And all remain blocked by daunting political challenges designed to protect and preserve the status quo.  History tells us that meaningful change will occur only when the community actively engages the issue, demands the change that is needed and exerts its own political power.

First printed in The Garden Island newspaper on July 12, 2017

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