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Hooser: Legislative reform: ‘A deep moral crisis’

The cynics and skeptics will say it’s just gonna be more of the same. Always the optimist, I beg to differ. There’s too much at stake.

We have a new governor and many new legislators. The public will be anxiously waiting and watching as the 2023 legislative session unfolds.

Also watching will be many new candidates, planning even now their 2024 campaigns.

Issues on the table include increasing affordable housing, reducing the influence of big money on elections, and following on the heals of the English/Cullen bribery convictions — reform of the legislative process, ethical standards and lobbying regulations.

Affordable housing will be attacked from many angles, the easiest and most obvious of which is to just throw money at it. Next on the housing play list will be eliminate red tape, streamline and fast track permitting (code for get rid of environmental protections and community involvement).

Hopefully, instead of eliminating important public and environmental safeguards, legislators will first do the basics and “staff up” those agencies as needed to expedite efficient and thorough permitting reviews.

Hopefully, also legislators will utilize the county and state tax structure to disincentivize (code for punish, reduce, eliminate by making it very expensive) foreign, offshore, and nonresident ownership of residential real estate.

Legislators should consider, as well, prohibiting the ownership of agricultural land by “aliens and non-American corporations” as is done in Minnesota and a handful of other U.S. states. Read: Regulation on foreign ownership of agricultural land: A state-by-state breakdown (2017), at https://bit.ly/3IhlJjS.

Reducing the influence of special interest money by passing clean elections legislation similar to what now exists in Connecticut and Maine must be a priority for us all.

In these two states, participating candidates are not allowed to accept or spend any private donations whatsoever. Instead, their campaigns are fully funded at a reasonable level by the state. This system greatly reduces pay-to-play corruption, elections are much more competitive, and candidates spend more time actually campaigning instead of fundraising.

Publicly funded clean elections is the “reform that make all other reforms possible.”

Pass clean elections and implement a hefty state tax or fee on campaign spending by non-candidate committees including SuperPacs and voilà — money loses and people win.

Two legislators went to jail after admitting to taking bribes. Currently, our elections are driven by big money and special interests. People are sick of it.

In response to the corruption, House Speaker Scott Saiki took the admirable step (with much fanfare), and passed House Resolution 9 establishing the Commission to Improve Standards of Conduct.

By May 4, 2023, and the close of the legislative session, we will know whether the speaker meant what he said, or whether it was all for the cameras.

The commission’s stated purpose was to “Provide recommendations to further the goals of the Code of Ethics, lobbying laws, campaign finance laws, and other applicable laws and rules that will increase awareness of, compliance with, and deterrent effects of those laws and rules.”

Chaired by the highly respected Judge Daniel Foley (retired), the commission recently issued its final report containing 31 separate proposals to battle public corruption, improve transparency, and increase public trust. Kudos to Foley and the entire commission for their excellent work. Read the report at https://bit.ly/3WC53HX.

The recommendations include support for 16 year legislative term limits, banning campaign fundraising during the legislative session, increased disclosure for lobbyists, and increased accountability of committee chairs. Also included is a proposal to codify a “bill of rights” for the public to “embody the ideals of respect, fairness, openness and dignity” in the legislative process.

The report’s executive summary states: “A deep moral crisis exists throughout each corner of the state.”

Will legislators find the moral and political courage to take the bold steps needed to confront this crisis? Or will they just nibble around the edges, replacing “shall” with “may” at every opportunity?

I’m hoping and actually cautiously optimistic they will do the right thing.

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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 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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