Voters to consider 6 amendments on ballot


In addition to a wealth of candidates on the Nov. 4 General Election ballot, Hawaii County voters will have five state constitutional amendments and one county charter amendment to vote up or down.

Probably the most pressing state issue is a constitutional amendment allowing public money to pay for private preschool.

The ballot language reads, “Shall the appropriation of public funds be permitted for the support or benefit of private early childhood education programs that shall not discriminate on the basis of race, religion, sex or ancestry, as provided by law?”

The measure is supported by Gov. Neil Abercrombie and a host of state agencies, the Chamber of Commerce of Hawaii, a coalition of private and independent schools, and business and construction interests. More than 150 individuals also submitted testimony to the Legislature in support of this measure.

“This is my highest priority,” Gov. Neil Abercrombie told the Legislature. “To reach the vision we have of a quality program which will get us the outcomes needed to make a difference, and to serve more 4-year-olds, we need to address the crucial need to build capacity, including spaces for children and work force.”

Lawmakers in approving the measure said ensuring high-quality early learning programs are affordable and accessible for all children is critically important. Hawaii is one of only 11 states that does not publicly fund early education.

The Hawaii State Teachers Association opposes the measure. The union fears a voucher program to pay for private preschool will draw badly needed funds from the public school system.

“Public education is the foundation of our democracy,” Wil Okabe, HSTA president, said in testimony. “(The National Education Association) and HSTA are committed to the concept that great public schools are the civil right of every child. Vouchers will never provide every child with access to a great school.”

Two other proposed amendments deal with judges. One would raise the maximum age before a judge has to retire from 70 to 80.

The ballot language is straightforward: “Shall the mandatory retirement age for all state court justices and judges be increased from seventy to eighty years of age?”

The purpose of this measure is to ensure an adequate number of state justices and judges to accommodate the needs of the state’s judicial system by proposing a constitutional amendment to increase the mandatory retirement age for such justices and judges from 70 to 80. The Department of the Attorney General and International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 142 supported this measure.

“If there is concern about the fitness of judges to make decisions that affect the lives of many, there are other means to evaluate the competence and capability of these jurists instead of an arbitrary age limit,” ILWU representatives said in testimony. “Such an evaluation can be initiated for cause or on a periodic basis.”

The Department of the Prosecuting Attorney of the City and County of Honolulu oppose the measure.

“The department notes that the mandatory retirement of judges and justices who reach the age of 70 provides opportunity for judicial nominees who have a fresh approach in analyzing the laws and a strong commitment to treating all participants in the court in a professional manner,” the prosecuting attorney said in testimony. “Moreover, the mandatory retirement of age 70 for justices and judges is sometimes our only opportunity for change.”

The other amendment requires public disclosure of the finalists for judgeships.

“Shall the judicial selection commission, when presenting a list of nominees to the governor or the chief justice to fill a vacancy in the office of the chief justice, supreme court, intermediate appellate court, circuit courts or district courts, be required, at the same time, to disclose that list to the public?” reads the ballot language.

The Judicial Selection Commission in 2011 amended its rules to disclose the list of judicial nominees to the public at the same time the names are transmitted to the governor or chief justice, as applicable, to appoint a justice or judge to fill a vacancy on the state bench. Supporters say putting the requirement in the constitution increases transparency and makes the practice more permanent.

The League of Women Voters of Hawaii is the chief proponent of the measure. That group also advocated the 2011 rule change.

“The public had really no or little input in the selection of our judges and justices in contrast to states where the judges and justices are elected,” said league Vice President Jean Aoki in testimony. “While we would oppose any attempts to select the members of our courts by election, we did believe and took the position that the names of the nominees for seats on the courts should be released by the Judicial Selection Commission. This would allow input by members of the public who knew one or more of the nominees to comment as to their qualifications.”

The Department of the Attorney General opposes the measure.

“The attorney general believes that confidentiality is critical to getting attorneys who would make good judges to apply to fill judicial vacancies, and believes that passage of this bill could undermine the quality of our Judiciary,” the attorney general said in testimony.

Two other amendments deal with special purpose revenue bonds, which are financial instruments that allow private-sector enterprises approved by the Legislature to borrow money under better interest rates and terms than they otherwise would be able to.

One deals specifically with agriculture: “Shall the State be authorized to issue special purpose revenue bonds and use the proceeds from the bonds to assist agricultural enterprises on any type of land, rather than only important agricultural lands?”

As would be expected, agricultural enterprises support this measure. They say expanding access to financing for any type of agriculture, regardless of how the land is graded, will increase sustainability and food security as a whole allowing farmers and ranchers to shore up aging infrastructure.

“Special purpose revenue bonds provide the private sector access to the lower rates available in public finance capital markets,” said Christopher Manfredi, president of the Hawaii Farm Bureau, in testimony. “Decaying plantation era or obsolete infrastructure, record high transportation costs and regulatory compliance issues are a crushing burden on our producers and processors and combine to threaten the food security and sustainability of our state.”

The other revenue bond issue is an attempt to improve public safety by providing financing to owners of dams and reservoirs.

“Shall the State be authorized to issue special purpose revenue bonds and use the proceeds from the bonds to offer loans to qualifying dam and reservoir owners to improve their facilities to protect public safety and provide significant benefits to the general public as important water sources?”

State agencies, farm bureaus, the Hawaii Chamber of Commerce, Alexander &Baldwin Inc., Hawaiian Commercial &Sugar Company, Hawaii Cattlemen’s Council and the Hawaii Section of the American Society of Civil Engineers are among the supporters.

“The Department of Land and Natural Resources strongly supports this administration measure as it could assist dam and reservoir owners by providing an economic means to bring their facilities up to current safety standards,” said DLNR Chairman William Aila Jr. in testimony.

The sole county charter amendment on the ballot would lengthen the term of the county clerk from two years to four, and require a two-thirds vote of the County Council for removal.

The ballot amendment reads, “Shall the County Charter be amended to create a four-year term of appointment for the County Clerk, with the County Council having the authority to remove the County Clerk from office by a two-thirds vote of its membership?”

Council Chairman J Yoshimoto, who is in his last term, had originally introduced the measure as a six-year term that allowed the council to fire the clerk only for cause. But other council members objected, and what’s on the ballot is a compromise.

Yoshimoto wanted the clerk’s term to be modeled after the six-year term of the legislative auditor, to bring stability to the council. Council members serve two-year terms and are term-limited after eight years.

But he said the compromise works, too.

“I believe having the clerk appointed for a four-year term will provide stability and continuity to the Clerk’s Office and benefit the council and the public,” Yoshimoto said.

Email Nancy Cook Lauer at ncook-lauer@westhawaiitoday.com.

 

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