By the People, For the People
The Hawai’i State Legislature and Honolulu City Council resumed this month, and the upcoming session and year promise to be a whirlwind of fast-approaching deadlines and hot topics. The Weekly takes a look at key people, facts, and issues to help guide your political engagement.
The domino effect
A string of appointments in the wake of U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye’s death preceded the legislative session, leading to changes in both the state Senate and House.
On Jan. 7, Gov. Neil Abercrombie appointed Rep. Gilbert Keith-Agaran to fill the District 5 Maui senatorial seat vacated by new Lt. Gov. Shan Tsutsui. “I’m pretty confident in the sense that I represented at least half the area and I worked closely with it [in the House],” Keith-Agaran told the Weekly. “I’ve lived in the district my entire life, so I’m familiar with the issues and challenges.”
When asked about his priorities, Keith-Agaran responded that “improving the quality of healthcare on the entire island” is high on the list, as are “following through on the modernization project at the harbor and at the airport” and “finding a new location for a new middle school.”
The domino-chain ended on Jan. 15, the day before the Legislature’s opened, when Abercrombie appointed Kahului businessman Justin Howard Woodson to the District 9 House seat vacated by Keith-Agaran. Woodson’s previous government experience was as an analyst and clerk for Reps. Tom Brower and Mele Carroll and Sen. Carol Fukunaga. Woodson could not be reached for comment by press time.
PLDC under pressure
Sen. Donna Mercado Kim took over for Tsutsui as president in the Senate. “After several years of belt-tightening, we’re greeting this session with a rosier economic outlook. The Council on Revenues has projected that tax revenues will increase by five percent this year, indications that the economy continues to improve,” Kim said in her opening remarks Jan. 16. But she also warned that restraint is necessary. “It might be tempting and politically popular for us to return to the spending patterns of more prosperous times. We should, however, proceed with caution,” she said.
Kim highlighted “a backlog of repair and maintenance needs for schools, parks, public housing, state buildings and our infrastructure” as well as “initiatives to establish a state-run early education program, a new prison and more affordable housing” as financial concerns to be addressed this session.
She did, however, say she hopes the Legislature will place no new tax burdens on citizens, instead focusing on wise use of existing resources and infrastructure. “Re-evaluating and reassessing what we have in place may not sound sexy . . . but we must discipline ourselves to do this if we are to be more efficient,” she said.
Repeal or restructuring of the Public Land Development Corporation will likely be one of the session’s hot topics. As of press time, there were 10 bills to repeal the PLDC moving through the Senate, as well as four that would change its structure and reach (the House has seven and three, respectively).
Sen. Laura Thielen, who introduced one of the repeal bills, later explained that while some bills truly do propose different things, it’s common for redundant bills to be introduced. Because of how rushed the session is, she said by phone, it can be difficult for all the legislators to communicate with one another. She recommended using the online tracking system (see sidebar) to get a handle on what will happen with each bill, and when. The number of bills introduced does indicate that “there is wide interest among the senators about having a repeal at least be heard and some decision made,” she said.
In the House, longtime Speaker Calvin Say was replaced by Rep. Joe Souki (Souki was previously speaker, before being ousted by Say 13 years ago). The transition was not without tension; when Say announced that he would step down from the position, he recommended Rep. Marcus Oshiro. Souki, however, gained support from House Republicans and enough dissident Democrats to claim the spot. On the Legislature’s opening day, Say offered a floor amendment that would allow supporters to vote for Oshiro, but the amendment was rejected.
Say told the Weekly, however, that he doesn’t believe any lingering resentment will prevent the House from being effective. “Everyone’s ready to get on board,” he said in a phone interview.
Say does, however, feel that the change in leadership will take the House in a different direction on hot-button issues such as gambling and taxes. “The Speaker today is a strong proponent of gaming. I’ve been the one against it . . . so there is a philosophical difference,” said Say. Additionally, “He [Souki] feels that we have to increase the general excise tax. I’ve always said no, we need to live within our means, just like any family. To tax more is only to tax the middle class and the low-income.”
Souki did not respond to a request for comment by press time, but he is an introducer on HB149, which raises the general excise tax from 4 to 4.5 percent effective Jan. 1, 2014. But Say expressed concerns that even this half-point increase could have negative effects on tourism, as well as Hawaii residents. “We’re all struggling. We cannot control the increased cost of the utility rate, we cannot control the health premiums,” Say argued.
However, in his opening remarks of the session, Souki also addressed the tax burden. “It’s time to look at rolling back the personal tax burden for people with lower incomes and the middle class, at least incrementally, over the next few years,” he said.
Souki also called for more discussion on tax credits (particularly in the film industry; see HB698, HB726 and HB1135), saying that paying for infrastructure improvements, healthcare and a greater social safety net will require the state to generate new revenue. Say questioned the effectiveness of tax credits, saying that even if the State does generate more tax revenue, “you just give it back in tax credits. It doesn’t make sense.”
Down the street from the Capitol, there are new faces in Honolulu Hale, as well. Six of the nine seats on the Honolulu City Council were up for election in 2012. District 3 Councilmember Ikaika Anderson and District 5 Councilmember Ann Kobayashi both won re-election, but four new members have joined the council.
In District 1, Kymberly Marcos Pine, a former Republican representative, unseated Tom Berg in the Nov. 6 general election. She said one important goal in serving her constituents is to bring jobs closer to home for Leeward residents. She also aims “to have better coordination between the college, high schools and businesses to make sure [students] are being trained properly,” Pine said.
In District 6, former senator Carol Fukunaga beat out 15 candidates in the Nov. 6 election for the spot vacated by U.S. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard. She told the Weekly that homelessness is still a chief concern for her district, which covers Downtown and Chinatown. “I’ll be focusing primarily on public safety issues,” expanded “weed and seed [behavior modification incentives]” and other kinds of “solutions which we hope will help us reduce some of the homeless population in and around my district,” Fukunaga said.
In District 7, former state representative Joey Manahan was elected in the Aug. 11 primary with 51 percent of the vote. Outgoing Councilmember Romy Cachola resigned Oct. 31 after winning a seat in the State House (whose term began the day after the general election), so the council voted to allow Manahan to step into the position in November.
Asked about the upcoming year, Manahan responded that his first priority is “ensuring collaboration and transparency of the new administration, as promised during the ‘historical’ joint inauguration of the new mayor and City Council of Honolulu, especially as it pertains to issues of rail, infrastructure and public safety.”
In District 9, Ron Menor–another former senator–replaced Nestor Garcia, who left due to term limits. “As councilmember of District 9, I will focus on providing important services and infrastructure improvements,” Menor told the Weekly. When asked about his priorities, he listed “relieving traffic, making the community safer and freer of crime, ensuring that future growth is well planned and purposeful and holding the line on fees and taxes.”
Because the City Council meets year round, it doesn’t have to move at the same rapid pace as the Legislature. Although the returning councilmembers didn’t highlight specific bills they would be supporting, they were willing to share their goals and expectations–many of which matched up with the priorities of the new members.
Transportation and infrastructure seemed to top the list for nearly all members. “My top priority is to make sure that the rail system is built efficiently economically, and my goal is to find ways to work with HART [Honolulu Authority for Rapid Transit] to save the taxpayer money during the construction period,” said Pine. She also said she’d ensure that “All other highway related projects stay on track.” She said that transportation is a concern in her district because “so many of the problems plaguing the Leeward Coast can be attributed the families not being together due to long commutes.”
Fukunaga also emphasized transportation-related repairs. “We’re receiving a lot of requests for street repaving and other infrastructure improvements,” she said.
Breene Harimoto, chair for the transportation committee, said that pedestrian and bike safety would be addressed and that he expected transit-oriented development to be a key discussion as the rail project moves forward. He did, however, emphasize that development would be well planned out and cautious. “When I talk about TOD, I always talk about smart growth. When [people] think of TOD they get turned off because they think of New York City, just a jungle of buildings,” he said. “The thing we have near and dear to our hearts is keeping country country, and smart growth can do that.”
Food and health
Harimoto also emphasized the importance of food security and decreasing dependence on imported foods, saying he’ll be “looking at how the city can help to encourage more agriculture or urban farming.”
He said one way to do this is by fixing zoning that currently prevents home farming. Anderson, who is chair of the zoning committee, said he’d be open to the idea.
Harimoto drew a link between TOD and health, saying, “Crossing all of those concerns is the issue of health.” he said. He said he hopes these changes will have people walking more and eating better.
Members seemed to agree that labeling of genetically modified organisms, which caused controversy in the council late last year, would probably not be on the table. “I think it’s clear, to at least the old council, that it really was not a city issue. So although I support the cause, I think it’s misdirected at the city,” said Harimoto. Pine agreed, saying that although she supported GMO labeling each time it was before her in the Legislature “the City doesn’t have an ability to effect change in this area.”
“The best we can do is pass a resolution. As for me, I’m not going to be focusing on things that I can’t effect by law or by statute,” she continued.
Anderson said that he expects development projects to be among the most controversial issues before the City Council this year, including the Hoopili project. “I do expect to see at least two developments,” he said. But he said the council can’t take action until plans are forwarded to them by the planning commission.
When asked what he thought about Hoopili, Anderson said he couldn’t commit until he sees the specifics. “I’ll withhold judgement until is see what the planning commission sends to us,” he said, noting that significant changes–or even a flat-out denial of the project–could be recommended before the City Council has any decisions to make.