By almost all measures, the 2017 legislative session deserves a report card dominated by “F’s”.
Instead of rising to the occasion, the Hawaii legislature is closing its session wallowing in the abyss of failure, well beyond the low end of mediocrity.
While a few bones were tossed out and crumbs dribbled here and there, the 2017 Hawaii State Legislature failed to move forward any meaningful positive agenda in support of environmental, economic or social justice.
They failed to cap interest rates on “pay-day lending,” failed to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, failed to regulate restricted-use pesticides, failed to ban polystyrene foam single-use containers, failed to protect the vital aquifer at Red Hill, failed to deal with the issue of quiet title to kuleana lands, failed to act on domestic violence, failed to prevent discrimination in healthcare access, failed the captive laborers in our fishing fleets, and failed in many, many other areas.
They could not even agree to set clean energy goals for transportation – goals mind you, not a mandate. Instead they caved in to the auto industry and climate deniers.
With a Trump administration in Washington DC aggressively working to reduce environmental protections, shred the social safety net and take away rights of the already disenfranchised, some of us actually hoped that 2017 would be a time for bold action by our Hawaii legislators.
But instead of bold action we received the same excuses that are delivered at this same time year after year. The phrases are so predictable that journalists can pre-write their stories with “insert phrase here” and just drop in the appropriate “We ran out of time,” or “We didn’t have the votes,” or “We will keep working on this during the interim, ” or “It was a bad bill,” ad nauseam.
To be clear, the problem is not a “bad bill.” If a bill is bad they should fix it or come up with another solution that they can support. The purpose of the legislature is not simply to pass and kill bills, but rather to solve problems.
If the legislature “runs out of time,” then they can and should extend deadlines and do the work needed to protect the public interest. Failing to ban the Restricted-Use Pesticide chlorpyrifos is an unconscionable act of neglect. Used widely in Hawaii on all islands, chlorpyrifos is a neurotoxin known to inhibit brain development in children and there is no safe level of exposure for a fetus. The “pre-Trump” Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has recommended banning this dangerous chemical from use on food crops, but the “post-Trump” EPA director has reversed his own agency’s recommendation and refused to ban the substance. Instead of stepping up to protect children, the Hawaii legislative response is: “Let’s wait until next year and take this up again.”
Pay-day lending is an industry that is allowed, by Hawaii law, to charge in excess of 400 percent (interest/fees) on the loans made primarily to low income workers living paycheck to paycheck. For the past 12 years a bill has been introduced each session that attempts to cap the interest rate at 18 percent (or sometimes 32 percent). Each year the industry prevails and the bills die and the excuse is “We didn’t have the votes.” Yet there are rarely any vote actually taken and, consequently, the public never really knows who is in support and who is not.
On the surface, the membership in the House and Senate appear to be completely dominated by the Democratic Party. But it is clear from their actions that a majority of those serving are essentially Democrats In Name Only (DINOs). Most choose the D label as a matter of convenience and give only lip service to Party values and platform.
The Democratic revolution of 1954 that took control of Hawaii’s government from the “Big 5” sugar plantation and land-based corporations created a wave of progressive political and policy reform. New candidates ran for office and were elected by a newly inspired electorate. As a result, many bold policy reforms were instituted in support of worker rights and environmental protections.
Somewhere along the way, Hawaii’s political leadership lost its way. There are solid progressive legislators in both the House and the Senate, but their effectiveness is hamstrung by a corporatist-centered leadership unwilling to buck the powers of Bishop Street.
It’s time for a new political and policy revolution in Hawaii.
Fortunately new leaders, some spawned by the Bernie Sanders movement and others simply called by the urgency of the moment, are starting to step forward. As these new individuals begin to test their mettle, both in the elections process and in the general area of public policy advocacy, a new wave is being created.
The momentum for change is building. May 4th marks the close of the 2017 legislative session but also marks the birth of a new movement for change.
This is a movement where people once again take ownership of their government, demand accountability from their legislators and support and empower those new leaders willing to stand up to the corporate and establishment powers now in control.
Please join with us Thursday March 4 from 7am until 8:30am along Miller Street to express our extreme disappointment with those at the legislature who have failed us so miserably this year.
(first published in Civil Beat on May 1, 2017)