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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A Hard Ask, A Kauai Invitation and A PHI Update

Please join us this coming Sunday July 9 from 5 until 7pm at the Ha Coffee Bar in Lihue (4180 Rice Street) to learn more about the Pono Hawaii Initiative (PHI).  Kauai friends and residents are welcome to join us for lite pupu and informal yet quality policy and political conversation.  Learn more about PHI!

If you are already familiar with PHI, you might skip to the bottom for “The Hard Ask” and how you can help.

If you are considering running for a Kauai political office in 2018 and/or want to be part of the core Kauai policy and politics PHI team, please email or call me directly 808-652-4279 so we (myself and other PHI Board Members) can meet with you individually (or in a small group) perhaps during the day Saturday July 8, or on Sunday July 9th earlier in the day prior to the Ha Coffee Bar event.

Maui and Big Island – Please stay tuned for your dates/venue!

PHI is a statewide organization focused on policy advocacy (51%) and electoral politics (49%). One of PHI’s primary goal’s is to identify, recruit and support candidates for public office at the State and County level.  We believe that the election of a small number of strong individuals who represent our general world view (economic, environmental and social justice), can significantly “move the needle” toward a more just and sustainable future for Hawaii. Electing just two or three strong individuals in the Hawaii Senate, and four to five in the State House could have a profound impact on Hawaii’s future.

Our plan includes partnering and aligning with other organizations/communities on all islands so that energy and resources are focused on candidates who will effectively represent our common interests, and who can win.

PHI’s policy initiatives will be equally aggressive and includes the development of new policy, proposing citizen driven ballot initiatives at the County level and advocacy for and against policy proposed at the state and county level (statewide).

We believe 2018 is the year to make bold policy and political change happen in Hawaii and are determined to support making that a reality.  PHI is a statewide effort, we are “all in” to win and we ask that you join us!

The Hard Ask

The Pono Hawaii Initiative (PHI) now in its start-up phase needs your support today.  We still need to raise approximately $4,000 to meet our fundraising goal of $8,000 which will pay our start up costs (legal etc) and initial operations.  The PHI plan calls for a single half-time staff person and no physical office.  I am an unpaid full-time volunteer but there are still expenses to deal with.

This is a “hard ask” not in the sense that it is difficult for me to make the request, but that it is especially important that we have your financial support now, prior to July 9 if at all possible. Everyone has the ability to give, at some level.  Some reading this email have the ability to fully fund our entire request at $4,000 and others because of circumstances may only be able to contribute $25 or perhaps less.  All contributions are welcome and the gifting of even $5 demonstrates your support and commitment to this effort.

There, the “hard ask” has been done.  Believe me, if I didn’t have to ask I would not, and again as a volunteer I am paid nothing.  Know also that I understand that the constant asking for donations can wear thin on the recipient and my hope is to soon hit the “pause button”, but that cannot happen until we meet our initial start-up goal 😉

Thank you in advance for your help and mahalo plenty to those who have already stepped up and made a contribution.

Contributions may be made online at: https://www.ponohawaiiinitiative.org/contribute/

Or via mail:
Pono Hawaii Initiative
P.O. Box 871
Honolulu, Hawaii 96808Pono Hawaii Initiative is a 501c4 entity and contributions are NOT deductible as charitable contributions for federal or state income tax purposes.

Sincerely,

Gary Hooser
Volunteer Executive Director
Pono Hawaii Initiative

NOTE1: Some have asked about the difference between H.A.P.A. and PHI and why the need to have two organizations.

Below is a very brief summary of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (H.A.P.A.) and the Kuleana Academy.  It is important to note that H.A.P.A. is a 501c3 initiative and the Pono Hawaii Initiative (PHI) is a 501c4.  These organizations while complementary, have totally separate Boards, budgets and administration as each has different legal constraints with regards to lobbying and political advocacy.  I am the volunteer Board President for H.A.P.A. and the volunteer Executive Director for PHI.

NOTE2: Contributions to H.A.P.A. are tax deductible but those made to the Pono Hawaii Initiative are not.

H.A.P.A. Kuleana Academy: http://www.hapahi.org/kuleana-academy

The Kuleana Academy is a three-month leadership development and non-partisan candidate training program hosted by the Hawaiʻi Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) in partnership with other leading public interest organizations in Hawai’i.  This program is designed to educate and train grassroots leaders who have a desire to serve in public office.  The program also provides participants from all islands a well-rounded introduction to critical social, economic and environmental issues in Hawai‘i, as well as in-depth leadership development training and the ins-and-outs of campaigning.  H.A.P.A. does not endorse nor support individual candidates, the application process is competitive and there is no litmus test for acceptance.  Applications for the upcoming September program are still being accepted.

*Our recent event at the Cafe Julia on Oahu was a great success!  Mahalo to all for the support and energy.

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Dangerous Times, Require Bold and Responsible Actions – “Hooser -Policy and Politics”

Policy and Politics – Gary Hooser

We are living in interesting and some would say dangerous times.  Daily we awake to news generated by a President who appears increasingly unstable; tweeting out angry, disjointed and cryptic messages in the early hours of the morning.   We have the so-called leader of the free world mired in a tangled web of deceit and deception, surrounded by plots within plots as uncertainty and crisis become the new norm.

Meanwhile we are alienating our once friends and allies abroad, provoking unstable enemies in possession of nuclear weapons and sending more and more young men and women off to fight ill-conceived and seemingly endless wars.

Other than read and fret daily over the news, most of us feel powerless in our ability to impact the national and international theater.  Hawaii U.S. Senators and Representatives are thankfully working hard to at least slow and hopefully prevent the total shredding of our social safety net, the general disintegration of environmental protections and a dismantling of our already frail health care system.

Sadly the war machine marches on unfettered by either side of our national leadership as the United States remains the number one seller of weapons on the planet.

Yes we must resist the madness and engage when possible the larger debate, but equally if not more importantly we can and must breathe new life into the adage “think global, act local”.

At both the State and County level our government has the power and authority to step forward to fill some of the gaps and shore up the systems rapidly being torn apart at the Federal level.

The State and County could increase the implementation and enforcement of existing local environmental protections even as they are weakened daily at the federal level.  Our local government could get serious about addressing the gross income disparity by increasing tax fairness at both the State and the County level shifting the burden to where it most belongs, to the top 1% and to the large multinational corporations that earn large profits here but to a great extent fail to pay their fair share.

There is much that local government can do but it takes bold action and a willingness to take risks and disrupt the status quo, attributes not normally associated with those holding political office.  I know as I have been there.  The nature of a political body is to take tiny bites and support small incremental change or do nothing at all.

However the times we live in require more.  Our planet is burning up, and the extreme income and wealth disparity between the top 1% and the rest of us increases daily.  We have a climate change denier for President, an EPA Director who views environmental protections as a impediment and a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development who thinks poverty “is a state of mind” seemingly oblivious to the fundamental institutional injustices that hold people down.

Our State and County government, both the elected officials and the agencies that implement the laws already in place can and must do more.  And the citizens for whom government is accountable must do more as well.  Each of us must take ownership and responsibility for the government we have, and we must spend the time and energy necessary to make it better, bolder and more effective.

As has been said by many others, “When the people lead, the leaders will follow”.  Please take the time as an individual citizen to lead; show up, get involved, call your local elected government leaders, encourage them to be bold and offer to help.

Now more than ever we must embrace our collective responsibility for the actions of our government and the future of our community.

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(first published 6/28/17 The Garden Island newspaper)

Gary Hooser – Formerly served in the Hawaii State Senate where he served as Majority Leader.  He also served for 8 years on the Kauai County Council and was the former State Director of the Office of Environmental Quality Control  (OEQC).  He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as Board President of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (H.A.P.A.) and is the volunteer Executive Director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.

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