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‘Democratic’ Legislature may be a misnomer

People from outside Hawai‘i often assume that because our state Legislature consists overwhelmingly of Democrats, and because in 2016 Hawai‘i voted solidly for Bernie Sanders, that out Legislature must be progressive or at least liberal in the traditional sense.

It is awkward at best to have to explain that a majority of our state legislators are Democrats in name only (DINO). They are essentially corporatists posing as centrists while getting elected as Democrats. They look at the world through the lens of corporate America and genuinely believe that the Chamber of Commerce and big business knows what’s best for the rest of us.

The recently-concluded legislative session provides four clear examples proving unequivocally that in Hawai‘i corporate values rule. These four bills are essentially litmus tests. Each provides little to no wiggle room for politicians wanting to straddle the fence.

Unfortunately, from the perspective of core Democratic Party values, all of the leadership in the state House of Representatives and a majority of its members were/are on the wrong side of all four issues. The state Senate, to its credit, did far better in these areas than the House.

There are 51 members in the state House, 47 were elected as Democrats and four as Republicans. There are 25 state Senators; 24 are Democrats and only one is a Republican. So, yes, at first glance, Hawai‘i’s legislature is overwhelming Democratic.

One would think they would be overwhelmingly in support of issues pertaining to economic, social and environmental justice.

But, sadly, this is not the case.

HB499 CD1 deals with extending leases on ceded and other public lands. Every single credible organization in Hawai‘i dealing with environmental or Hawaiian-land and public-trust protections is vehemently opposed to this measure. All three Kaua‘i representatives and our single state senator voted in support. The vote in the House was 15 opposed to 36 in support. Nine senators opposed and 16 were in support.

SB676 SD1, if passed, would have increased the minimum wage from $10.10 to $12 in 2022, and was actively supported by over 38 different labor/worker organizations, the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i, and numerous others. Though SB676 passed in the Senate, the House chose not to even schedule it for a hearing. Not one Kaua‘i representative stepped forward to publicly voice support and push for a hearing and a vote. Not one.

The most-common excuse given by representatives was “this is not a good year.” Needless to say, it’s never a good year for the business lobby. SB676 SD1 was not scheduled to take effect until July of 2022, and 20 other states are in fact increasing their minimum wage this year.

SB614 SD2, if passed, would have eliminated the state income tax on unemployment benefits received in 2021 as a result of COVID. Again, while our Kaua‘i senator voted in support, not one of our Kaua‘i representatives stood up to champion this measure.

The most-common reason given for leaving the unemployed holding the bag was “the budget is too tight” and “federal rules prohibited the granting of tax credits.”

Yet each of our representatives voted yes on HB1278 HD1, which awarded businesses $700 million in tax relief. That’s correct. They gave business $700 million and gave the unemployed nothing.

SB726 CD1, also known as “Breonna’s law,” would have prohibited “no-knock warrants” and required police officers in Hawai‘i to knock and announce themselves prior to breaking someone’s door down.

SB726 CD1 was passed in both the House and the Senate. However, in an 11th-hour parliamentary maneuver, House Speaker Scott Saiki killed it on the floor of the House. There was no public reason given. The speaker simply said he was killing the bill, and the entire House or Representatives went along with it. While several representatives promptly objected to this action in writing, Kaua‘i representatives were not among them.

I know and have worked closely over the years with many who serve in that big square building in downtown Honolulu. The vast majority are pleasant, personable and well-meaning members of their community.

However, if the goal is to protect the environment and public-trust lands, level the economic playing field, help those who need it the most, and push back hard against injustice at all levels, we need much more than pleasant, personable and well-meaning.

We need leaders who truly understand the urgency of the moment and the importance of these core values.

2022 will be a watershed year in Hawai‘i politics. I encourage all to step up to the challenge. Run for office. Challenge an incumbent. Find a candidate you like and join his or her campaign.

Looking at the political landscape across the archipelago and not wanting to risk the core message getting buried in nuance, I will close with the obvious: Electing just 11 new state representatives and four new state senators, can change our world here in Hawai‘i for the better.


Gary Hooser is the former vice-chair of the Democratic Party of Hawai‘i, and served eight years in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kaua‘i County Council, and was the former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawai‘i Alliance for Progressive Action, and is executive director of the Pono Hawai‘i Initiative.
Source: The Garden Island

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