Though state Senator Gil Keith-Agaran, D–Kahului, Waihee and Wailuku, is running for reelection this year, he has no challengers. Still, he’ll be on the ballot and we wanted to know his thoughts on some of what we think are the biggest state issues of the year. And he obliged. In fact, pay close attention to his answer on the question involving police misconduct (Keith-Agaran chairs the state Senate’s Judiciary and Labor Committee, where numerous police misconduct reform bills have died in recent years).
MAUITIME: What is your top priority if re-elected?
GIL KEITH-AGARAN: Making sure that Central Maui’s students have facilities that support and enhance student learning/achievement and support the plans and efforts of principals and teachers in our community. The two complexes serving Central Maui (Baldwin Complex & Maui Complex) includes thirteen of the thirty-three schools in Maui Nui. A primary function of the legislature is to support those actually working in public education and that means securing funding for priority projects and making sure those projects are implemented. Funding for some projects have been secured and additional funding will be needed for other repair and maintenance and new buildings.
Cooling Classrooms: With the school calendar unchanged, the need to provide cooler classrooms remain but not enough Central Maui campuses are included in the first wave of Department of Education (DOE) cooling projects. Some AC project money was secured for specific campuses but not every classroom will be included in the first wave of DOE’s AC initiative.
Upgrading Infrastructure: Maui Waena should have a new building opening shortly but those classrooms need to have the capacity and infrastructure to use updated technology. The older elementary schools (Waihee, Kahului, Wailuku and Lihikai) need either replacement buildings (preferable to additional portable classrooms) or upgrades in electrical and other infrastructure to implement STEM programs.
Population: Maui Waena and Iao are both fairly large middle schools and planning has begun for a third campus in the Waiale Project District. Making sure construction of the new Kihei High School continues because its completion will provide Baldwin and Maui High some breathing room to use existing space once South Maui students have their own community high school.
Academic Changes: The Governor’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Task Force will be coming to Maui to get local feedback on whether existing DOE programs are aligned with the federal changes (ESSA replaced No Child Left Behind) and what ESSA means for accountability (administrators and teachers) and measurements of student achievement.
MT: What event in your life best prepared you for public office?
GK-A: Nothing prepares you for public office except your own experiences growing up, living and working in your community and interacting with other people. I grew up in a Central Maui during the slow ending of the Plantation-era, attending both a small private elementary school (Doris Todd in Paia) and a large public high school (Maui High in Kahului). I had a sense that my parents and neighbors understood and valued community connectedness–that working for the collective good lifted up everyone. My neighbors knew who we were and cared about what we were doing enough to let our parents know if we were kolohe. I saw the connectedness in how my family celebrated big events–in a time before caterers, our family and neighbors gathered and prepared all the food, decorated the community clubhouse and often provided the music and entertainment for weddings, baby luaus, birthdays and funerals. It’s an upbringing that makes me less cynical and dismissive about public service and more contemplative about people’s motivations.
MT: Who should be the next President of the United States?
GK-A: The democratic nominee.
MT: Which person who previously held the office you’re seeking do you hold up as a model? Why?
GK-A: The district lines have changed over the years (my predecessors include Shan Tsutsui, Jan Yagi-Buen, Joe Tanaka) but I would say Mamoru Yamasaki. Senator Yamasaki, a 1935 Maui High School [graduate], came out of the labor movement and served many years in the House and Senate. With no children of his own, Senator Yamasaki was an advocate for education and expanded health case, especially for Hawaii’s youth. He was quiet and patient but a fierce supporter of Maui.
MT: Do you support or oppose the current law that exempts police officer misconduct records from public disclosure? Why?
GK-A: Police departments are required under Haw. Rev. Stat. §52D-3.5 to report to the legislature on police misconduct. Under Haw. Rev. Stat. §92F-14(b)(4), the names of officers who are disciplined short of discharge are currently not required to be disclosed (suspended officers names are not disclosed). Police officers, generally, should be treated under the same standards as other public employees with regard to personnel records, including disciplinary information. The Hawaii Supreme Court recently decided that the lower court should not have ignored the current statutory language and should balance the significant privacy interest of a suspended police officer against the public interest in disclosure of that suspended officer’s name.
MT: Right now Hawaii has two minimum wages–one for workers, and one for restaurant workers who receive tips (which is lower than the first minimum wage). Do you support this? Why or why not?
GK-A: The tip credit was a concession to restaurant operators and as structured now likely remains usable mainly by high-end operations with better record-keeping capabilities. Act 82 (2014) raised the present Hawaii minimum wage to $8.50 this past January and to $9.25 in January 2017 and then $10.10 in January 2018. Act 82 (2014) also made changes to the tip credit, raising the tip credit incrementally but requiring that tip credit application must result in compensation at least $7 more than the applicable minimum wage. Applying the tip credit is complicated and it’s not clear the extent of tip credit use. Some restaurant workers would not receive the kind of tip compensation that occurs regularly at high-end operations.
MT: What should Hawaii’s minimum wage be?
GK-A: Hawaii’s 2016 minimum wage ($8.50) is exceeded by only 14 other states but our cost of living likely exceeds most of the country. The real debate should be about coming up with a living wage and providing opportunities for workers that pay them such wages. I’m watching the experiment in Oregon, San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles and other jurisdictions with setting minimum wages up to $15 based on region (whether a certain area is urban). Based on Hawaii’s cost of living, even the $15 discussed and adopted elsewhere would not be a living wage.
MT: The proposed merger between Hawaiian Electric and NextEra–will this be good or bad for Hawaii? Why?
GK-A: Hawaii would benefit from the additional financial resources, knowledge and experience that NextEra can bring to upgrade existing infrastructure and to ensure that the local utility continues progress to meeting the lofty goal of shifting to renewable generated power. The local utility has been resistant to public input and interest in more distributed generation and shifting from the current model of the utility as both a purveyor and a generator of firm power. Further, the local utility’s mission drift into other business other than electricity has raised questions about its capacity to transition as technology and innovation make alternative power generation more viable and reliable. The utility does incorporate more wind energy than in the past but storage of generated capacity needs to be developed to match available power with Hawaii’s peak power needs. Hawaii’s electrical grids are very localized, with separate grids for each island (Kauai’s utility is a Co-op and not part of the proposed merger); any required infrastructure improvements would be subject to increasing existing ratepayer investments. What Hawaii loses is local-based decision-making. Whether the local Public Utilities Commission and the local Consumer Advocate would have the authority and will to balance local consumer needs with NextEra’s corporate goals is an unknown.
Photo courtesy Sen. Gil Keith-Agaran