The power of a single legislator, whether on the council, at the state Legislature, or in the U.S. Congress, is limited to that of being one voice and one vote. They may introduce bills (proposed laws), they may cast a vote on those bills, and they may use their voices to inform and educate. As an individual legislator, they may also convene meetings and “shine a light” into the often-dark recesses of government operations and the decision-making processes.
But the true power of a single legislator comes with their ability to form alliances with others. We are taught in school that majority rules — and this is the single-most important truism of a democratic government.
On Kauai, we don’t need seven councilmembers to agree, we actually only need four. In the state Senate, the magic number is 13 out of 25, and in the State House, it’s 26 out of 51. In the U.S. Senate, the critical number is 51 of the 100, and in the U.S. House, it is 218 of 435.
Alone, a legislator can be a strong voice and sometimes a strong vote — but when part of a majority they can move mountains (assuming, of course, that majority wants to move mountains).
With the stroke of a pen a majority in the state Legislature could:
1) Solve the problem of Hawaii’s dependence on importing 90% or more of our food, by requiring all public schools, prisons and hospitals to only purchase locally grown food. Think about what a boon this would be to the local farming and ranching industries. Instantly farming for many would “make sense” and, more importantly, it would make money — and, of course, that money and that food would stay in our local economy;
2) Improve the lives of all low-income working people in Hawaii by gradually increasing the minimum wage to a living wage, mandating a paid family leave policy and aggressively funding a local “earned income tax credit;”
3) Expand and diversify our economy by providing aggressive support and tax credits to small, locally owned businesses. Increase taxes on big-box stores, banks, insurance companies, luxury resorts and other large businesses with off-shore ownership. These businesses export profits, often avoid the payment of local state taxes, and have a bad history of paying substandard wages to local workers. They need to pay more, and those funds used to support genuine, small, local, family-owned businesses;
4) Require all rental car companies to utilize only electric or ultra-high-mileage vehicles. This would decrease Hawaii’s carbon footprint and dramatically increase the market and support for electric vehicles statewide. This would also increase the demand for home roof-top photovoltaic (PV) and cause the proliferation of charging stations — making electric vehicles even more attractive and affordable;
5) Increase visitor/air-travel fees/taxes to offset the greenhouse gases generated by the travel industry, and utilize those funds to create “green jobs” focused on watershed restoration and natural resource protection.
And, of course, a majority could also completely restructure the management of Mauna Kea, increase teacher pay, reform our criminal justice system, legalize cannabis, create affordable housing by increasing density in our urban centers while upgrading infrastructure AND reform lobbying and campaign-spending regulations.
The naysayers will say: “Where are you going to get the money to do all of this?”
There is, of course, money, though it will have to be pried from the cold, very-live hands of the uber-rich, foreign pension funds and the multinational corporations that are currently making billions off the exploitation of our natural resources, our indigenous host culture, and local families. There is no shortage of people, businesses, products, and practices — that do not pay their fair share of the societal and environmental costs they put upon the planet.
Too much too soon? The answer is creating public policy that both phases in the change incrementally but also ultimately achieves the goal. A majority could pass laws today that mandate 100% local foods served in schools, 100% of rental cars being electric and 100% of Hawaii’s workers earning a living wage, but are achieved over the next decade — 10% increase per year over 10 years. To be clear, we need a mandate — not simply goals and aspirations.
This is the power of the majority, and this, of course, should be our goal as citizens — to elect and support a majority of legislators at the county, state and federal level who put people and the planet first, who recognize the urgency of the moment AND who are willing to act accordingly.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.