Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 13 Primary Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.
The following came from David Tarnas, Democratic candidate for state House District 8, which includes North Kona, North Kohala and South Kohala. The other Democratic candidate is Makai Freitas.
Go to Civil Beat’s Election Guide for general information, and check out other candidates on the Primary Election Ballot.
1. What is the biggest issue facing your district, and what would you do about it?
The biggest issue facing my constituents is the rising cost of living. I will continue to advocate for legislation to reduce the cost of living by addressing taxes, wages and the costs of housing, health care, childcare and elder care.
I have demonstrated my commitment to address these issues by supporting bills to make the Earned Income Tax Credit permanent and refundable; provide tax rebates of up to $300 per resident; increase the minimum wage; appropriate $300 million to build rental housing and $45 million to facilitate development of infrastructure for affordable housing; increase funding for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program for rental assistance; provide $15 million to the Ohana Zones project providing temporary shelter, transitional housing and services for those who are houseless; prohibit rental discrimination against recipients of Section 8 housing vouchers; address health care provider shortages in rural areas by increasing residency and training opportunities and providing loan repayment assistance to doctors working in rural areas; expand reimbursements for telemedicine services; appropriate $200 million to develop and expand preschool facilities statewide; increase funding for the Kupuna Care Program and the Aging and Disability Resource Centers in each county; and fund adult dental benefits for all Medicaid patients.
2. Many people have talked about diversifying the local economy for many years now, and yet Hawaii is still heavily reliant on tourism. What, if anything, should be done differently about tourism and the economy?
During the pandemic, the state instituted restrictions that virtually stopped all visitors. During this time, residents enjoyed beaches, parks, oceans and hiking trails without competing with visitors. It became clear there were too many visitors and the environmental quality of our special places was suffering from overuse.
As we rebuild our tourism economy, we must protect our environment by limiting the number of visitors using these sites and by charging visitors user fees to help pay for environmental protection and resource management in these sites. That’s why I led the effort in the Legislature to establish the Ocean Stewardship fee that every ocean recreation customer will pay for marine resource management and conservation programs. I support legislation to establish “green fees” for visitors who use any public trust resource, such as beaches, trails and state lands, to help pay for resource management and conservation programs on state lands.
We need to increase efforts to educate our visitors about how to treat our environment and our community in respectful and low-impact ways so we can maintain environmental quality and our quality of life. I also support expanding other industries including astronomy, ocean science and technology, forestry, agriculture and knowledge-based industries.
3. An estimated 60% of Hawaii residents are struggling to get by, a problem that reaches far beyond low income and into the middle class, which is disappearing. What ideas do you have to help the middle class and working families who are finding it hard to continue to live here?
In my response to the first question, I described the many legislative accomplishments I supported that are helping to address the main drivers of our rising cost of living in Hawaii. This includes legislation we passed that implemented tax reform, increased the state’s minimum wage, provided assistance to defray the cost of housing for low income families, facilitated the development of additional affordable housing, expanded rural health care capacity, expanded preschool facilities, increased support for kupuna care services, and funded adult dental care for Medicaid patients.
Going forward, the Legislature must do more work in all of these areas. I support providing a General Excise Tax exemption for food, medicine and health care; making additional changes to our tax code to ensure corporations and high income earners pay their fair share of taxes; expanding workforce development programs in high school and community colleges; providing publicly funded preschool in all communities statewide; expanding financing programs for affordable housing projects; granting counties the authority to authorize land use district boundary amendments for parcels between 15 and 50 acres for affordable housing projects; and facilitating the redistricting of appropriate land parcels from the agriculture district to the rural district to allow for more affordable housing development.
4. Hawaii has the most lopsided Legislature in the country, with only one Republican in the Senate and only four in the House. How would you ensure there is an open exchange of ideas, transparency and accountability for decisions? What do you see as the consequences of one-party control, and how would you address that?
As chair of the House Water and Land Committee, I made sure to consider as many good bills as we could, including those introduced by minority members. In all our committee deliberations, I treated all testifiers politely and with courtesy to allow each of them equal opportunity to present their views and recommendations, even if I didn’t agree with what they were saying.
I also made sure to give all committee members, including minority members, equal opportunities to ask questions and offer suggestions. When I made recommendations for the committee to take action on measures being considered, I always explained my rationale for doing so to ensure transparency for the public.
It is important that our committee deliberations are done in a transparent manner and I always welcome questions about my recommendations and actions so that I am held accountable for my legislative work. Through these actions, I am demonstrating the way I would like all committees to conduct their hearings and deliberations to ensure an open exchange of ideas, transparency and accountability for decisions.
5. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I’ve researched how the statewide initiative process has worked in other states and have come to the conclusion that the decisions by voters on statewide initiatives are usually the result of advertising campaigns rather than careful analysis of the proposed policy reform. As a result, these statewide initiatives can result in policy decisions that reflect the opinions of those who are funding the most effective advertising campaign and are actually detrimental to the majority of citizens in a state.
I would not support establishing a statewide citizens initiative process because I believe that our system of government as a representative democracy is a better way to reform policies by having elected officials carefully evaluate the pros and cons of each bill, listen to constituents, have multiple hearings on bills as they go through the legislative amendment process, and be held accountable for these decisions by constituents.
6. Thanks to their campaign war chests and name familiarity, incumbents are almost always re-elected in Hawaii legislative races. Should there be term limits for state legislators, as there are for the governor’s office and county councils? Why or why not?
I do not support term limits for state legislators. The legislative process benefits by having committee chairs who are knowledgeable in the subject area and by having leaders who are experienced in the legislative process. If a legislator is effective and responsive to constituent concerns, it is likely the legislator would get re-elected because the constituents determine the legislator is providing good representation for them. This system works for the good of the community.
The Legislature should continue its efforts to improve the existing system by making it easier for people to vote, like supporting programs to promote voting by mail, and by authorizing ranked choice voting, as the Legislature just approved for special elections. I am very happy with the new system just introduced by the Elections Office that allows voters to track their ballots through the mail-in voting process.
The Legislature should do more to improve the existing system by funding the production by the Elections Office of a voter pamphlet with information on all candidates and ballot measures the voters will see on their ballot. This will help to educate citizens so that the existing election process will be even more effective.
7. Hawaii has recently experienced a number of prominent corruption scandals, prompting the state House of Representatives to appoint a commission tasked with improving government transparency through ethics and lobbying reforms. What will you do to ensure accountability at the Legislature? Are you open to ideas such as requiring the Sunshine Law and open records laws to apply to the Legislature or banning campaign contributions during session?
I was shocked and appalled by the illegal actions of the two former legislators who were indicted for taking bribes. I expect all legislators to conduct themselves with the highest standards of honesty and courtesy.
Personally, I conduct my work during session and the interim in full compliance with state ethics laws and rules and avoid any conflicts of interest. I was co-chair of an interim legislative committee that was conducted under the Sunshine Law, so I know how this works.
Based on this experience and my work as House Water and Land Committee chair, I believe it is better for the Legislature to be able to have conversations outside hearings between and among committee members as we review and consider bills, possible amendments, and strategies to incorporate input from stakeholders which would not be allowed if the Legislature were subject to the Sunshine Law. Therefore I don’t support making the Legislature subject to the Sunshine Law.
Regarding fund-raising by legislators during session, I fully supported the bill we passed last session that prohibits having legislative fundraisers during session. However, I don’t think it is reasonable to prohibit anyone from making a campaign contribution if they choose to do so.
8. How would you make the Legislature more transparent and accessible to the public? Opening conference committees to the public? Stricter disclosure requirements on lobbying and lobbyists? How could the Legislature change its own internal rules to be more open?
For many years, I have tried to get the Legislature to allow remote testimony at legislative hearings. I introduced legislation that would compel the Legislature to establish such a system. However, the bills never got approved because of resistance among some legislators.
Finally, because we had to close the Capitol to the public during the Covid pandemic, the Legislature did make the change and set up a system to allow for remote testimony at legislative hearings. We also televised all sessions of the state House as well. These changes to our House rules are positive and I am a strong advocate to keep remote testimony as an option for all constituents even after the Covid pandemic is over.
I have always supported strengthening the disclosure requirements for lobbyists. The Legislature needs to do as much as possible to increase transparency and accountability in our legislative process. As lead House chair of several conference committees, I have always encouraged the public to attend the hearings and made the necessary accommodations to facilitate this. The Legislature needs to do all we can to improve trust in our process.
9. Hawaii has seen a growing division when it comes to politics, development, health mandates and other issues. What would you do to bridge those gaps and bring people together in spite of their differences?
Our community has become more polarized because the media glorifies and encourages conflict. As a professional with years of experience in meeting facilitation and alternative dispute resolution, I believe that legislators should encourage rational debate about contentious policy issues, rather than speak in absolutes and demonize those who disagree.
I have demonstrated this by having leadership roles in several interim committees working on contentious issues, such as the public land trust and management of Mauna Kea. I was asked by the House leadership to work with Chair Mark Nakashima and serve as a member of the Mauna Kea Working Group (MKWG) to come up with an alternative management framework for Mauna Kea.
After many months and hundreds of hours of meetings, the House introduced legislation based on the MKWG report. Then we went through a lengthy legislative process in the House and Senate, resulting in a bill that passed the legislature with overwhelming support from both chambers. People from both sides of the debate ended up supporting the final bill that emerged from the Legislature, noting that the process we went through could serve as an example for the Legislature to use for other contentious and polarized issues.
10. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Hawaii. Be innovative, but be specific.
As I described above in Question No. 2, I strongly believe we need to reinvent our tourism economy so that we have fewer visitors and we need to make sure these visitors pay their fair share of the cost to manage the resources and protect the environment in our special places.
The Legislature needs to continue its efforts to establish these user fees. We started by the establishment of the ocean stewardship fee, which was established by a bill for which I was the lead state House negotiator. We need to continue by approving legislation to establish “green fees” so that all visitors using public trust resources, including beaches, trails, forests, parks and other state lands, will support government programs to manage and conserve resources to protect the environment, reduce conflicts of use and enhance our quality of life.
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