Senator Kai Kahele holds A&B executive Vice President Meredith Ching to the fire.

In my capacity as the Legislation Committee Co-Chair for the Democratic Party of Hawaii, I urged the State Central Committee to support efforts to oppose HB1326 in all its potential forms. I urge you to do the same. Call, email your State Senators and tell them to oppose all efforts to pass the bill.

Where The Power Lies

Lobbyists and savvy activists alike will tell you it’s a lot easier to kill a bill than to pass a bill. You can look at the history of any number of issues to see this is true. Emergency room contraception took something like 20 years to pass. The same is true for marriage equality, aid in dying, and likely too many others to name here.

The structure and machinations of the Legislature are arguably designed with this intent in mind. It could be argued this is a good thing from a thoughtful, neutral perspective. But in practice what it often means, at least here in Hawaii, is good legislation that benefits the public dies quiet deaths in the shadows of committee dockets. Running parallel are bad bills that either does little to benefit the public good or are outright corporate giveaways and such.

And so it is the case with the (in)famous “water bill”. Environmentalists, economic justice advocates, Native Hawaiians, and progressive activists (hereafter referred to collectively as “the champions”) have been united in their vile hatred of this bill. After weeks and months of hard fought battles, they finally breathed a sigh of relief and gasped a celebratory cheer this past Thursday. HB1326 HD2 appeared to have finally been disposed of. But evil has a way of fighting its way back.

What The Hell is This All About?

To better understand the “water bill” and why the issue has so many good and otherwise gentle people wanting to pull their hair out and scream, some background information is necessary.

For a long, long time (think decades, at least) the big and powerful landowner Alexander and Baldwin (A&B) has been diverting obscene and hard-to-imagine (let alone quantify) amounts of water from public streams. In order to take public water, the law requires that one must receive a permit from the Department of Land and Natural Resources (DLNR). In lieu of these long-term leases, one can apply for a short-term Revokable Permit which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. These Revokable Permits are meant to be limited and temporary permits. They allow entities to take water while they take the necessary steps to apply for and receive a long-term permit.

Well, for decades both DLNR and A&B have been in cahoots to side-step or, more accurately, completely and utterly ignore the law which requires long-term leases. For far too many years, A&B has failed to apply for a long-term lease and DNLR has refused to require them to do so. Though communities around Hawaii had tried for a long time to make this happen, A&B’s money and influence had protected them. Until….

A lawsuit brought by community members and organizations and argued by the Native Hawaiian Legal Corporation and Earth Justice led, in 2016, to a Circuit Court ruling which said A&B’s Revokable Permits are invalid. They would need to go through the long-term permit application process if they wanted to regain access to water from public streams.

In a panic and eager to return to business as usual, A&B called their friends at the State Legislature to remedy the situation.

House Bill 2501

In 2016, we saw the first “water bill” move through the Legislature. HB2501 extended A&B’s ability to operate under short-term Revokable Permits for three more years while they worked to acquire long-term permits. As we are seeing this year, back in 2016, the champions went nuts. They had been given a victory by the courts only to see their elected officials, once again, being called to heel at the foot of A&B. Despite overwhelming opposition from the community, HB2501 was signed into law by Governor Ige as ACT 126.

The bill was sold as necessary to protect the “small farmers and ranchers” who would be devastated by a lack of protection from losing their own Revokable Permits. Never mind the fact they were never in jeopardy, A&B and their loyal subjects paraded out these hapless bystanders as the real victims; shields protecting A&B from the spotlight. The champions were assured; “this is a one-off measure to give A&B and the DLNR three years to put their houses in order.” And so… we waited. Hoping against hope that the powerful A&B and their lapdogs, DLNR and the Legislature, would hold to their word.

Set to expire at the end of 2019, ACT 126 gave these bad actors three years to sort their shit out. But alas, we know now how this story was intended to play out. It would seem no one really intended to follow the law and A&B continues to divert water from public streams with impunity.

In The Meantime….

In late 2018, A&B sold more than 40,000 acres of agricultural land to the entity Mahi Pono for $262 million. The new landowner has been making the rounds on Maui. They’re confidently telling residents and activists that they intend to cultivate the land to the benefit of Hawaii. Only time will tell and their involvement in the “water bill” fight has been mostly behind the scenes. They certainly don’t appear to be operating thus far for Hawaii’s benefits.

House Bill 1326: The Lie Laid Bare

How can we really know the true intent of (at least some) legislators? Simple. HB1326, as originally introduced by Representative Ryan Yamane, extended the sunset of ACT 126 indefinitely, essentially codifying permanently into Hawaii law A&B’s ability to take water with no oversight, no accountability, and no regret.

As a “concession” the Hawaii House of Representatives amended HB1326 from an unlimited extension down to a mere seven years. Some may see this as a sign of compromise and reasonable intent from the House. The champions see it for what it is; a green light for A&B and DLNR to continue to shirk the law for nearly another decade.

Through the course of this fight, the champions began looking at the land sale contract between Mahi Pono and A&B. Perhaps unsurprisingly, a provision was included in the contract that stipulates A&B will owe Mahi Pono $62 million if A&B cannot secure “access for collection and transmission of surface water from state-owned lands in East Maui”.

Incensed and betrayed, the champions sounded the call to action. By the time HB1326 made its way to the Hawaii Senate, the fix was in; House leaders wanted the bill passed quickly and unamended. They wanted the Governor’s signature on the measure ASAP and were prepared for a fast veto override vote before the end of the 2019 Regular Session.

The Senate, taking a sobering approach to the task at hand, held the bill for a time before scheduling a hearing before a joint Committees on Water Land and Ways and Means.

Senator Kai Kahele, Chair of the Water Land Committee proposed a reasonable compromise: a seven-year extension for those honorable “small farmers and ranchers,” but excluding A&B entirely. After a six-hour public hearing, members of the Water Land Committee voted 3-2 to support Senator Kahele’s Proposed SD1. Sadly, but perhaps unsurprisingly, Senators on the Ways and Means Committee, led by their Chair Donovan Dela Cruz, deferred indefinitely the bill. And so it died in committee.

Or so thought the champions….

Corporate Influence in The Square Building Knows No Bounds

Within mere hours of HB1326’s death in committee, rumors and rumblings began spreading about efforts to pull the bill from the Committees’ grasp and out to the Senate Floor where the full body would take action on the House version. House and Senate Leadership, showing where their true allegiances lay, are moving to protect A&B from the law once again.

And so here we are today. Our elected officials, loyalty-bound not to their oaths, their constituents, or their conscience, but to their corporate masters are showing their true colors.

The champions have sounded the call. So too am I writing this for their benefit, and the benefit of Hawaii.

Call your State Senator. Tell them to stand with the people of Hawaii. To stand with the champions who fight tirelessly to what’s right. Call and tell them to cast off the shackles that bind them to their corporate masters. Remind them of their oaths to protect and defend the Hawaii State Constitution. Remind them they serve the voters who elected them to serve.

Politics is too often a dirty and bloody game. In my own time, I’ve seen too much bad shit and not enough good. I will be outraged if this bill becomes law. But I will always be humbled and honored to have been able to work with the magnificent champions who have been fighting for justice on this issue for years. Join us.

 

Featured Image by Lauryn Rego @ Cartoon Court Report 2019 – Thanks Lauryn!
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Who Are the Real Freeloaders, workers or corporations?

Are Hawaii Democrats Too Friendly With the Chamber?

I think it is fair to say that in no other state, county, city or jurisdiction in which Democrats comprise the legislative majority does the Chamber of Commerce have such unprecedented influence and access as they do here in the Aloha State.

There seems to be a running track record of Hawaii legislators (the vast majority of whom are Democrats) following the lead (following the direction?) of business interests generally and the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii specifically.

Though the business community constantly complains about how hard it is to do business in Hawaii, they certainly aren’t having trouble having their concerns addressed at the legislature.

The Chamber is Not Looking Out for Hawaii

If it’s bad for business or, perhaps more accurately, if it’s perceived to be bad for business, the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii will oppose it.

More stringent environmental regulation in the face of climate change and see level rise? The Chamber hates it. Increased protections for workers? The Chamber questions its necessity. Increase the minimum wage to reduce poverty in Hawaii? The Chamber will tell you to do so would be the end of the world.

But they are liars. They are lying to the press. They are lying to the public. They are lying to their members and they are lying to legislators.

If stepped-up in manageable increments, increases to the minimum wage is good for workers. It’s good for the economy generally. Oh, and by the way, it’s good for businesses. But the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii will tell you how all that is false. The Chamber of Commerce Hawaii will lie right to your face, hoping to scare you just enough to oppose it.

So, how exactly are they lying? Let’s look at the facts. (Don’t tell the Chamber; they hate facts).

Increasing the Minimum Wage Doesn’t Cause Job Losses

In 2014, after a two-year battle, the Democratically-controlled Legislature finally acquiesced to increasing the state minimum wage from $7.25. On January 1 of each year following, through 2018, the minimum wage increased to its current rate of $10.10. In each year since that increase, the unemployment rate in Hawaii has dropped to historic lows.

So, despite claims of catastrophe from the Chamber of skyrocketing unemployment, it didn’t happen. Not only did the local rates drop, but they remained below the national unemployment rate. Did the Chamber with all their money and research simply get it wrong? Or did they know the likely outcome and opted for fear-mongering instead of facts? You can make up your own mind.

Increasing the Minimum Wage Doesn’t Force Business Closures

The above mentioned unemployment rate suggests there wasn’t a mad rash of business closures during the time period in which minimum wage workers were seeing more money in their paychecks.

While the State doesn’t appear to track the rate at which businesses open or close, there is at least anecdotal evidence businesses weren’t shuttering their shops left and right. In fact, from my experience, there are more small businesses, more restaurants that opened for business during the same four year period as the minimum wage increased.

Did some businesses close? Almost certainly. But there is zero evidence to suggest those closures were a direct result of minimum wage increases. Even if there were some businesses who were forced to close because of the minimum wage increase, there is no denying they were the exceptions, not the rule.

Smart Increases to the Minimum Wage Don’t Substantially Contribute to Inflation

There is no one thing that causes inflation. I’m no economist, but as I understand it, there is a complex web of market forces that contribute to increases in inflation.

When the costs for businesses go up, so too do their prices often go up. But the cost of a cheeseburger isn’t going to go up significantly. Any business who says their prices will double, or triple, is simply lying. Or they’re actually terrible managers whose businesses aren’t long for this world anyway.

I know of one little breakfast/lunch shop in downtown that posted a sign notifying customers that the increase in their prices was a direct result of the minimum wage increase. You know what? That business is still open and the part of informing “That’s good customer management.”  If you want to know more on how you could get your business, provide good customer experience click right here. So, while you may see a small increase in prices as your favorite shop, restaurant, or coffee shop, that increase isn’t likely to break your wallet. Or force the business to close.

More recently, we have heard the talking point that raising the minimum wage will “increase the cost of living” in Hawaii. This is just another way to describe inflation….

Once again, the fear tactics of the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii fall flat in the face of facts and experience.

Question Democrats Who Parrot The Chamber Talking Points

Those points listed above are just a few of the issues the Chamber of Commerce Hawaii raises when railing against any increase in the minimum wage. And though there are more, others I haven’t highlighted are no more based in reality than those I touched on above.

With a bias that leans more “pro-business” than “pro-worker,” too many of Hawaii’s Democrats are accepting wholesale the Chamber’s talking points. Or, they’re hedging their bets, worried that the Chamber and the broader business community will not support them for reelection. But I’m not aware of a single elected official who has lost a reelection because they supported a raise for working people.

So, when you hear your elected official (if you’re in Hawaii, odds are they’re a Democrat), be sure you tell them to stop buying the lies the Chamber is selling. Tell them raising the minimum wage is good for you, for your family. Tell Democrats that increasing the minimum wage is good for Hawaii. Tell them to stand courageously against the Chamber of Commerce and side-by-side with the working people of Hawaii.

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The "Spoiler" Effect

Consider the “spoiler effect”…. I was recently accused of parroting “old retreaded DNC theories,” about third-party candidates as spoilers. In the same online conversation, one commenter said Hillary’s victory was “overthrown by Electoral College power.” My response grew too long to post on Facebook and decided it was worthy of a blog post.

Ahh, where to begin….

Third-Party, Independent Spoilers Are a Real Thing

That third-parties have failed time and again and the wins their voters handed to Bush and Trump are not “old DNC theories.” Rather, they are facts borne out by data. Just because hard-core independents and progressives who flatly refuse to vote Democrat don’t like being forced to carry that mantle doesn’t make it any less true. If Nader voters in 2000 had swallowed their pride and voted for Gore, we’d likely live in a very different country today. And if those same voters had lined up for Hillary instead of Stein, we wouldn’t be enduring the lunacy, stupidity, and mean-spiritedness of Trump today. Despite complaints and efforts to deflect onto “the system,” Green voters absolutely receive at least some of the blame.

Again, these points are not the sole domain of the DNC, though they certainly would agree with me. Pundits, political scientists, and the like have said pointed to results time and again; the data bares it out. Third-party candidates are spoilers. Libertarian-conservative candidates draw votes from Republicans. Greens, Communists, Democratic Socialists, etc. draw votes from Democrats.

Third Parties Are Hard Work

The Green Party has done little, if any, of the REAL work necessary to build a viable third-party. Every four years they hold up their quixotic candidate as a real alternative. But what work are they doing during the intervening years to build a base? None.

Are these people out in their communities knocking on doors, talking to voters, to young people? There’s no evidence of it. Are they out there doing the work to build a viable alternative? Nope. If the Green Party were genuinely serious about being a viable third-party, they’d be building one. Instead, they rely on Presidential Election years to garner some attention, some money, and some press coverage.

This, by the way, is the very work begin done by the Working Families Party. They’ve had some real successes. They’re putting money and time and effort into training and organizing. I’ve never seen a single shred of evidence the Green Party is doing anything similar.

Like these spoiler voters, the Green Party decries the two-party system as rigged. They attempt to rile-up voters tired of either party, then scream, complain, and cry foul when they lose. Until they do the work required, I not only won’t support their candidates, but I won’t validate their whining with a response beyond what I’ve said here.

Understand The Electoral College

Before digging in here, let me say that I generally support maintaining the Electoral College. A position I know is widely unpopular among progressives, among which I count myself as one.

As for the Electoral College, I wonder how much reading, research nay-sayers have done to understand the origins of the Electoral College, why it was set up, or how it functions (both now and originally)? Maybe some folks have, which is definitely a good thing. But, I’m guessing most, if not all, have not. So, let me educate you.

On two other occasions, I’ve written about the Electoral College. You can check them out here and here.

The Electoral College was originally established as a safeguard against an uninformed, uneducated, and potentially deceived electorate. Electors were originally intended to be elected somewhat independent from the “popular” vote and were meant to protect the republic from someone exactly like Trump. Someone not to be trusted, someone inclined toward monarchy (during the time of the Founders, Fascism wasn’t a thing). While votes of Electors were intended to be apportioned based on the popular vote, they had the authority to act independently in extraordinary circumstances; i.e. Trump. Again, the vote of the Electors wasn’t bound hard and fast to the results of the popular vote.

However, at the behest of direct democracy folks and those who were skeptical of the Electoral College’s power, the laws regarding the selection and authority of Electors were changed. So, whoever wins a majority of the popular vote in the state receives ALL the Electoral College votes of that state. In fact, it was direct-democracy types who “broke” the Electoral College. If left to operate as it was originally intended, there’s no reason to believe Hillary (or Gore) wouldn’t have been elected. The Electoral College is not some grand-dark conspiratorial institution. Or at least no more so than Congress.

Let’s Employ Some Critical Thinking

It should also be noted, only five times has the outcome differed from the popular vote. And in at least two of those instances, there was a “strong” third-party candidate that served as an effective spoiler. I’m not aware of any research or scientific evidence that draws a correlation between the two. However, it would seem to me there is at least some empirical evidence to suggest the different outcomes between the Electoral College results and the popular vote results in at least two of the five instances could, at least partially, be a result of the third-party spoiler.

Ultimately, if some insist on conspiracies to justify an idealized and unrealistic approach to decision-making in the voting booth, that’s certainly their prerogative. But I would nonetheless encourage them to at least try to look at the existing system with unbiased eyes. I certainly won’t claim the system as it stands now is ideal, or even good, but it is what we have. I’m not sure abolishing or effectively neutering the Electoral College is the way to fix it. But, until this system is fundamentally changed, I will continue to make decisions based on the reality of the existing system, not the romanticized hope for the ideal.

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I’ve been an introvert, avoiding crowds and mingling with new people, since I was young. For a long time, I though my shyness a hinderance, something that needed fixing. Like so many things about me.

As I’ve gotten older, however, I’ve learned to accept, to a certain extent, the way I am, rather than trying to “fix” myself. This isn’t to say self-improvement isn’t a good thing, but within realistic expectations. I will never be an extrovert. I’ll never be completely comfortable in crowds or with new people. But over the years with help and practice, I’ve gotten to the point where I can overcome these character traits in limited bursts.

And I think I’m fairly good at it. I know how to be polite, personable, and how to talk to relatively large groups of people without freaking out. But it comes at a cost. One I didn’t completely understand until I went to Washington D.C. to complete my Masters Degree capstone project.

D.C. Was a Tiring Blast

I had a great time in D.C. I, for the first time during the two-year program, had the opportunity to meet some of my fellow classmates. Because the program is entirely online, we took classes together, but resided all across the country: Virginia, New York, Nevada, Florida, Michigan, Nebraska, and more. With different backgrounds, career paths, and political ideologies, we were quite the hodge-podge of folks.

While I enjoyed the days spent together with these fine people, being “on” as it were, for eight to 10 hours a day was exhausting for me. Yes, there was moving around, getting up early, and having to be mentally sharp during the day, but it was really the social interaction that took the biggest toll on me each day.

Constant Reminder

Though I learned better my limits during the D.C. Residency, I was nonetheless reminded about those limits just a week ago.

It was Opening Day of the Hawaii State Legislature. A day for pomp and food and talk-story. And glad-handing and lobbying.

In the past when I’ve attended the Opening Day festivities, I’ve usually done so with friends and long-time colleagues. Though socializing is involved, it has always been easy because I’m around people I know fairly well. But this year, as I branch out doing some consulting on my own, I travelled the halls of the Capitol with a new client.

It was fun, to a point, and I think we made some good contacts. When I decided it was time to return home to do some other work, I said goodbye to my client and made my way home. I had every intention of doing work. But once I got home, changed clothes and sat down for a minute, I was hit with a wave of exhaustion. Despite knowing my socializing limits and the toll it takes on me, I was surprised at how tired I as all of a sudden.

A nap was required.

A Measured Approach

Most people I know who are involved in political activism are extroverts. They enjoy the work in all the ways which I force myself to be good at. In all the ways it energizes them, it knocks me out. And though this is something I know about myself, I also think it’s something of which I’m going to have to be regularly reminded. Long days of socializing, meetings, engaging at the Legislature and Council, etc. likely won’t end with me back at the home office doing more work. They’ll likely end with me laid out, mentally and physically exhausted.

Knowing this and trying to adjust for it might mean limiting how much time I spend each day, or week, being “on.” And it might mean late afternoon naps followed by late night sessions at my desk. In any case, Opening Day was a reminder about knowing my limits and doing a better job accounting for them.

I accept these aspects of my personality, though sometimes I wish it was a bit easier. A bit less work. Maybe as I get older and continue to “practice” it’ll become easier. But I’m not counting on it.

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Two State Senators, Stanley Chang and Karl Rhoads have introduced a Constitutional Amendment lowering the voting age (for non-federal) races, to 16.

In an article, published in Civil Beat, Senator Rhoads says, “the idea is to get people in the habit young, and they’ll keep doing it.” A noble intent.

As a wide field of entrenched politicians continues to obstruct substantive changes in the face a wide range of mounting problems, I’ve seen growing effort to increase participation in elections. In most cases, those efforts manifest through voter registration drives and Get Out The Vote (GOTV) campaigns.

An extension of those efforts might be to decrease the voting age to 16. However, low voter participation in Hawaii, is only part of what I see as a more complex problem. So, should 16-year-olds be allowed to vote? There are opinions on both sides of the debate and I find myself straddling the divide.

Young People Should Have A Say In Their Future

There are certainly good reasons why someone who is 16 should be allowed to vote. In Hawaii, 16 is the age of consent for sex. It’s the age someone can get a learners’ permit to drive a car. Certainly, there are 16 year-olds who are working, who are paying taxes. And the world is on the brink of environmental collapse. Shouldn’t the generation inheriting a world on fire have a say in how we address the problem?

Young people are still required to register for the military draft (18-25). They may be forced to fight (and potentially die) in a war by politicians elected earlier. So, shouldn’t they have a say? And someone can join the military at 17, with parental consent.

I’ve met extremely intelligent, hopeful, engaged and thoughtful teenagers who are well versed in certain policy issues. I’ve seen them campaign for candidates and issues. And I’ve watched and listened as some have spoken passionately and thoughtfully. On matters ranging from gun control to universal health care, to the threat of climate change. Looking at these bright and young future leaders, the answer seems obvious to me; yes, let them vote! The world could only be better for it.

We Shouldn’t Discount Age and Experience

On the other side, someone who is 16 is simply too young to be granted such responsibility. It has been pointed out by some that 18 is the minimum age for “maturity.” The frontal lobe of the brain isn’t fully developed at 16 (though there exists research which says the brain isn’t developed at 18 either). With that immaturity may come a level of inexperience or unfamiliarity with the world. A lack of nuanced understanding of the issues affecting the world today. Or the critical thinking skills necessary to make decisions about candidates or issues.

Maybe its because I’m getting older myself, but I often find myself wondering about young people. About the things that motivate and animate them. Should a generation of people spending countless hours wandering the streets chasing imaginary creatures for sport really be considered mature enough to make decisions that affect everyone?

Though voter turnout for the youngest voting bracket (18-29) saw a significant increase from the 2014 to 2018 midterm elections. It remained low when compared with the 2016 elections (think Bernie Sanders). These increases are promising, but prove to me a relative lack of maturity in voting. Sanders is a charismatic candidate who did indeed energize young people. But in the absence of a mobilizing figure, young voters largely remain disengaged.

I believe strong critical thinking skills are necessary to make informed decisions in the voting booth. With little life experience and a base knowledge primarily reliant on what their teachers are saying, I’m not sure a 16-year-old is properly equipped with knowledge or experience enough to enter a voting booth.

Finally, there is a reason for some concern with 16 year-olds being too influenced by their parents. Or worse, that those receiving ballots at home (Hawaii is contemplating all-mail elections), kids would be forced to vote the way their parents want.

No Easy Answer

Ultimately, every argument against lowing the voting age in Hawaii can be negated by looking at the way seasoned voters make their decisions. Certainly, there are adults who I’d say lack experience, knowledge, or the ability to think critically. So if that’s true for someone who is 18 and can vote, why not let younger people vote as well?

Fears about parents forcing their kids to vote a certain way already exist for kupuna whose ballots are filled out by their caregiving children. But obviously, no one is suggesting senior citizens shouldn’t be allowed to vote.

These are points well taken. I’m just not sure pointing to a moron 40-something’s right to vote is justification for allowing moron kids to vote.

I believe strongly that the problems facing our democracy are deeply structural. With a failing education system and a voyeuristic (and biased) 24-hour news media interested primarily in ratings and entertainment, voters young and old are arguably ill-equipped to make important decisions in the voting booth.

Increasing voter participation is a noble goal and worth supporting. But in the end, my greatest concern is making sure we are giving people the cognitive tools to make informed and thoughtful decisions. Until we tackle this problem, I’m not sure I’m comfortable expanding the voting pool.

I’m sure this debate will continue and friends on both sides of the issue will remain emphatic about why they’re right. I look forward to being convinced one way or another; it just hasn’t happened yet.

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