Civic involvement is key to saving Hawaii

One thing I’ve learned from talking to people around the state is that Hawaii’s residents care about the future of our islands — and they have a lot of questions for our elected officials.

This week, the Grassroot Institute of Hawaii hosted a series of legislative wrap-ups on Oahu, Maui and Hawaii island. Joining me at the events were my institute colleagues Joe Kent, executive vice president; Malia Hill, policy director; and Ted Kefalas, director of strategic campaigns.

At every stop, people were eager to learn more about the institute’s efforts to reform the state’s emergency powers law; reduce barriers to housing; bring taxes, debt and state spending under control; liberalize the state’s cryptocurrency laws; and affect many other issues considered at the recently concluded state legislative session.

Several people asked whether the emergency powers reform bill now on Gov. David Ige’s desk would be sufficient to protect our constitutional rights.

Malia explained that SB3089 — if enacted into law — would go a long way toward restoring Hawaii’s constitutional balance of powers, thus ending the governor’s ability to extend states of emergency virtually forever — as he seemed to be doing over the past two years with the COVID-19 lockdowns.

The bill is not perfect, but it would give the Legislature the power to end an emergency by a two-thirds vote, require justification for the suspension of any laws and add protections in particular against the suspension of the state’s open-records law.

On Maui, one attendee asked how we ended up with so many barriers to the creation of new housing. The short answer is that good intentions do not always equal good policy, and good intentions explain why we are bound by so much red tape today.

In the absence of a better understanding of simple economics — which apparently isn’t so simple for some people — we now have layers upon layers of land-use regulations and zoning laws at both the state and county levels. We have, in fact, one of the most burdensome regulatory schemes in the nation, with an approval process that can take homeowners and developers fully a decade to navigate.

The questions we received reflected a significant local enthusiasm for zoning reform and an end to NIMBYism, and I hope policymakers have noticed that enthusiasm too.

On the Big Island, we were asked about the accounting shenanigans of the state that emphasize its revenues and downplay its $42 billion of debt and unfunded liabilities. Joe explained that too many of our legislators view the budget like a checkbook, paying attention to only what goes in and what goes out. They ignore the state’s long-term debts, such pensions and healthcare, so as to present a sunnier picture to the public than is warranted.

As you may have guessed, these were not softball questions. I am particularly grateful to the attendee who challenged us on the issue of Hawaii Tourism Authority funding, making the case for a future for the HTA.

Our position has been that the tourism industry is more than capable of funding its own promotion, and that the $60 million the Legislature allocated to it this year could be put to better uses, including opening the door to a tax reduction.

More important, the funding was approved through the use of “gut and replace,” a practice that denies meaningful public input. It also is a practice that the Hawaii Supreme Court overturned just six months ago. On that basis alone, the HTA funding should be vetoed.

Nevertheless, the question did give us a chance to affirm that we do support tourism in general, and it opened a necessary discussion on what role the government should play in tourism management and promotion.

No matter what the topic, all of the questions we received were thoughtful and interesting. But the ones that really touched me were about how people can get more involved in Hawaii’s political process. On every island, in every audience, were civic activists looking to make a difference in their communities and asking what they could do next.

It was exciting to witness that energy and know that so many people are getting engaged with state and local politics. There is always something that you can do to be heard, whether it’s writing to your legislator or the governor, writing a letter to the editor of your local paper or organizing a community effort to reach out to elected officials.

As Ted explained, politicians pay attention when they get sincere, original feedback from their constituents.

We love that there are so many people looking to be more active in support of liberty and economic freedom. I want you to know that the Grassroot Institute is here to support those efforts however we can, whether through research, outreach tools or events like our legislative wrap-ups.

Keep sending questions, challenging us, supporting us. Together we can achieve a happier and more prosperous Hawaii.

This commentary was Keli’i Akina’s weekly “President’s Corner” column for May 21, 2022. If you would like to have his columns emailed to you on a regular basis, please call 808-864-1776 or email info@grassrootinstitute.org.

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