Candidate Q&A: State Senate District 5 — Gil Keith-Agaran


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 Gil Keith-Agaran, Democratic candidate for state Senate District 5, which includes Wailuku, Waihee and Kahului. He is unopposed.

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 2020 Legislature wanted to chip away at the costs of living — housing, child care, wages and taxes — that make life challenging for residents even in good times. The pandemic disclosed what we knew: The number of working families living on the financial edge remains way too high.

Developing housing for local working families should be a priority.

Hawaii provided $600 million to the Department of Hawaiian Home Lands to build more homes. We also need to monitor and build on the investments made in this year’s budget to directly subsidize for-sale homes (as it does rentals) to bring prices down for local working families and other housing initiatives (i.e. SB3048 CD1 – restructures funds available to Hawaii Housing, Finance and Development Corporation to support housing projects; SB2479 CD1 – allowing Hawaii Public Housing Authority to develop mixed-income and mixed-financing projects; HB1937 CD1 – establishing a Yes In My Backyard working group to identify housing development impediments; SB2898 CD1 and HB1600 CD1 provide funding for transient oriented development planning throughout the islands.)

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?

In the short term, no alternative can completely replace the number of jobs visitor accommodations and vendors for hotels, restaurants and activities provide. Maui Nui (without military investments or presence as an additional economic base) remains more dependent on the visitor industry than other counties. But we can better balance visitor impacts on our local population, infrastructure and natural areas.

Any diversification must promote self-sufficiency and develop workforce skills in alignment from lower education to college and vocational training. Public investments should advance Hawaii’s own resiliency in health care (locally training nurses, technicians and physicians), agriculture (supporting farmers with land, water and facilities/equipment to develop value-added products), and alternative energy (developing, adopting, proving and marketing technologies).

Maui Health System now hires nurses directly from the University of Hawaii Maui College and provides on the job training. MHS, needing local medical technicians to reduce off-island contractors, is working with UHMC to develop a program. John A. Burns School of Medicine is expanding residency and medical education to the neighbor islands. UHMC, the Farm Bureau/Farmers Union and local entrepreneurs are collaborating to develop value-added products from local crops. The Legislature also funded UHMC’s expansion of vocational education.

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?

Making Hawaii a better place to live, work, play and raise our families must be top of mind. In recent legislative sessions even during the pandemic-induced economic downturn, we passed a package of child care/preschool initiatives (expanding Open Doors, building classrooms at UH campus and libraries). We also piloted directly subsidizing with infrastructure investments on for-sale homes (as government does rentals) to bring prices down for local working families.

We continued to tackle quality of life issues this year. We made a billion-dollar investment in housing as well as additional pre-school facilities. Along with housing and education investments, the Legislature also raised the minimum wage and made the state earned income credit permanent and refundable. We also resumed funding grants to local nonprofits who provide services to the neediest residents and save the state money in doing so.

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?

I trust local voters and their decisions on the partisan composition of the House and Senate. Legislators ultimately answer to their constituents. Communities pass judgments on their representatives every two years and on their senators every four years.

The members of the Legislature reflect the friends and neighbors who support them and allow them to serve. The Democratic Party members bring to the legislative a wide range of experience and views (and a range of political leanings and ideas from social and fiscal conservatives and moderates to liberals and progressives, and rural and neighbor islanders, working people, business owners, professionals, and urbanites). Individually, they should be strong advocates for their communities and constituents.

The frank and blunt debates on issues among the Senate majority caucus reflect a diversity of thoughts and ideas. The policy ideas and candidates of the other parties simply have not attracted and sustained enough support from their various communities.

5. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process? 

No. As I responded in 2020, I don’t agree with the assumption in that version of the question that “citizens initiatives” are more democratic than the legislative process. Ballot initiatives often result from parochial and narrow concerns of well-organized, well-funded groups (often from out-of-state) who have the resources to collect the number of signatures required to place a question on the ballot. These are often the same groups residents complain have too much influence at the Legislature.

If you set the signature bar low (like to run for office) and allow a large number of ballot measures, then voters will have a book to read before voting and only a minority of people will review that information diligently. I place more confidence in getting better decisions reached through the local public hearing process and deliberation and debate during a legislative session and perhaps several sessions.

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?

No. The members of the Legislature reflect the friends and neighbors who support them and allow them to serve, and electoral success depends more on community involvement and responsiveness than campaign spending.

The eight-member Maui legislative delegation since the last reapportionment (2010) has seen one or more new members for the Senate’s Molokai-Lanai-Upcountry and Central Maui seats, and the Kahului, Wailuku, Lanai-Molokai-East Maui and South Maui House positions. This fall, Maui voters will chose new members for the South/West Maui Senate, South Maui House and West Maui House seats and three Maui incumbents face challengers.

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 will take a look at what the House commission suggests and any recommendations from my own community.

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?

The Hawaii Capitol, before the pandemic, was more open than most state legislative buildings — most other legislatures had more security checkpoints and restrictions on entry. An unexpected benefit of the pandemic closure of state buildings was the Legislature’s investment in and expansion of technology to facilitate virtual participation/hearings which provided opportunities for neighbor islanders to testify without incurring the time and expense of traveling to Honolulu.

Any legislative rule changes to continue technology-based access would need to be consistent with constitutional requirements for the Legislature’s process and any statutes. The Senate rules are available for the public to review and set out the different committees and their areas of jurisdiction (indicating what kinds of proposals would be assigned to those committees).

Conference committees are intended to work out Senate and House draft language differences in a particular bill and a purpose of the rules requiring the final language of a measure to sit in each chamber for48 hours is to give notice to the public of its contents before final votes are taken.

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?

Dissent and protest play an important role in civic life. Communities in Hawaii have always had strong divisions on various issues — i.e., using Kahoolawe as a bombing range, locating the convention center, Maui airport runway extension, leasehold conversion, geothermal energy development, the pace and location of development, GMOs, closure of agribusiness operations and post-plantation stream diversion and uses, TMT, vacation rental regulation, civil unions and same sex marriage, death with dignity, etc.— and dissent or protests have not always been civil at legislative hearings, administrative proceedings, or community meetings.

Part of any elected or appointed official’s role is to continue to listen and attempt to communicate with constituents who sometimes strongly express their concerns in disagreeable ways, and to take those concerns into account. While I’m not a big fan of task forces — sometimes a legislative tool to put off a decision or deflect — convening stakeholders and knowledgeable residents to provide input and suggestions can also help reduce the temperature and tenor of the arguments.

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.

In theory, the programs funded by the General Fund (general tax revenues) should reflect the state’s priorities. While education (both lower and higher) makes up the bulk of the general fund portion of the state budget and is to be distributed equitably statewide, as a legislator from a multi-island county with schools in somewhat isolated rural areas, I support looking at some minimum amount of funding outside of the number of students enrolled (the current Weighted Student Formula) for whole school funding.

I want to make sure every school has a certain level of non-teacher staffing support, including health officials/nurses, counselors, maintenance workers, etc. and technology (i.e., the pandemic proved that our rural/neighbor island communities lack adequate and accessible broadband to support virtual learning).

As the governor implements the federal broadband investment, I would want rural and neighbor islands prioritized rather than simply augment resources in urban Honolulu. I would be cautious about dedicated funding — in other areas, dedicated funding (Special or Trust Funds) become viewed by the bean counters as the only funding source for particular programs.

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