SEEKING BALANCE IN POLITICS
By Rep. Jon Riki Karamatsu
Friday, March 19, 2010
Lawmaking can be so messy at times. Politicians pass laws based out of big policy ideas without studying the details. They pass laws out of emotion. Sometimes laws are passed or killed because of threats or fear of public perception. The legal analysis and the visionary approach looking out for unforeseen circumstances or unintended consequences are blinded by narrow-minded goals and sometimes selfish power plays. Some good laws never see the light of day and bad ones are passed because of politicians’ fear for their re-election probabilities rather than on the merit of the issue. As for the laws we do create, a number of them violate constitutional rights, curb due process, infringe on privacy, mandate judges to punish individuals for violations of laws without looking at each unique case differently, duplicate laws that are already in existence, and damage the balance between agriculture and development.
Throughout my career I have worked on policy goals I believed was in the best interest of Hawaii. I understand that what’s the best interest of another politician may be different or in the opposite direction of mine. Therefore, one of the most important skills in lawmaking is the art of compromise. The key to achieving “compromise” is “balance.” As chair of the House Judiciary Committee, I have learned that I have to work in the shades of gray and even moving into the black, often times swallowing terrible laws pushed by my colleagues.
As of now, many of my bills are already dead. If a chair, doesn’t like my legislation, I accept it and move one. You would think a chairman of a powerful committee such as mine would leverage other politicans’ bills to get my bills passed. Nah, not me. So many politicians, lobbyists, community leaders, and constituents want something, and I try my best to see if I can address their concerns or wishes. I have helped individuals who opposed me and even attacked me personally. I strongly believe that I must forgive others who have gone against me. A difficult task, but something I believe is important rather than harboring ill feelings that will just tear you up inside and do more damage than good in the long run.
However, for a few issues, I feel obligated to make a stand on. I list some of the examples I faced this year as chair of the House Judiciary Committee.
I try to find a favorable result or at least seek some balance, especially if a bill treats an individual or entity differently than another like what is happening in our campaign finance laws where corporations, out-of-state-residents, competitive bidding contractors and small contractors are treated differently from others and cannot participate in the political process as far as campaign contributions are concerned.
On the same note of equality under the law, I have concerns that the same-sex community does not have the same rights as the heterosexual community. The legislature looked at giving all the contractual benefits and liabilities heterosexual couples have to same-sex partners. Threats against the careers of politicians eventually ended the civil unions measure when it was at the brink of a historical passage.
Further, in criminal law, every case is different based on the facts presented. We have laws that mandate certain penalties disregarding the fact that every case is unique based on the facts and the circumstances. Some of the judges testified that they can identify individuals who get in trouble with the law who can be helped to turn their lives around through the programs available in the specialty courts, which not only makes a former troubled citizen, a productive citizen, but it saves the state millions of dollars, and billions of dollars if you look into the long term.
For fireworks, it is unfortunate that there are individuals who break the law because their wrong-doings has given a lot of momentum to the extreme right side of our community who wants to ban fireworks completely. Currently, fireworks can only be popped within a four-hour window on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day and for a number of hours on Chinese New Year and Fourth of July. Other than that, there is a ban on fireworks. Personally, I enjoy the beauty of fireworks and sharing the experience with my family and friends.
In regards to the ignition interlock bill for driving under the influence, I believe the program is worthwhile and should be tried in the State of Hawaii. However, I am opposed to the proposal to eliminate our “implied consent” law that allows one to refuse a breath, blood, and urine test, but by doing so, one loses his or her license for a time period with no legal recourse. The legal community and lawmakers of the past ruled that “driving” is a “privilege” and not a “right”. Recently, I accepted a version of the bill that would mandate a conviction of a petty misdemeanor (up to 30 days in prison) for one who refuses to take a breath, blood, or urine test without legal recourse. “Due process” is a “right” and not merely a “privilege”. Current law says that one is in violation of the driving under the influence law if they have an intoxication of .08. An individual who would have tested below .08 is considered legal; however, a refusal would make that person a convict regardless, even if that person would have been considered legal or below .08, thus inncocent under the law. He or she will not have due process in the court law. I understand and believe in the policy behind this change, but as a lawyer, whenever a law can convict a person who is innocent under the law, I have a problem with that.
Finally, I have helped many developers in their projects through some of the bills I pushed as well as letters or public appearances I have done to show support. But at the same time, I am looking out for our farmers and agricultural lands. Again, balance is important. I strongly believe the Ewa farmers who are the second largest growers of produce in Hawaii must be protected. In this case, I support protecting these agricultural lands because producing our own food is essential in Hawaii’s self-sustainability or at least in our attempt to become so. Besides the Kunia lands, the Ewa lands are the last of the large, flat, fertile, and contiguous prime agricultural lands on Oahu. The soil is rated A and B according to the Land Study Bureau and soil experts explain that the soil is top for agriculture as it has a natural churning process similar to some of the lands that are now cemented over in Hawaii Kai. Moreover, the sun is constant and winds are ideal unlike that on the North Shore. Every farmer will say there has to be a constant access to water for successful farming. The Ewa lands have natural wells underneath. In fact, much of our drinking water is in the large aquifer below. If we cover these lands with cement, a lot of the water will run off into the ocean rather than replenish our aquifer. More development is planned on flat lands in Kapolei and in the hills of Makakilo as well as in Central Oahu and on the neighbor islands. The soil on the hills and mountains are too acidic for many of the produce to grow there. I have a bill that was never heard by it’s assigned committee that would start a task force to look into creating incentives to encourage the redevelopment in our urban core, especially our old buildings. The problem we have in Hawaii for agriculture is that many of our farmers do not own their land, but lease them instead. They are at the mercy of rich landowners, some from overseas. Since the beginning of land use laws in the Kingdom of Hawaii to the Territory of Hawaii to statehood and up to today, investors would look for agricultural lands in Hawaii with the intent to reclassify them out of agriculture and into an urban classification because agricultural lands are cheaper, and with a reclassification where development can be performed, the value of the lands would jump up. This has been the tradition, and it will continue to go on until someday we will have very few farmers left. That is why I feel strongly in protecting the last of the active farmers on our prime agricultural lands. I introduced bills that would prevent the reclassification of prime agricultural lands that have active farming or showed a history of farming. These bills have all faded away, but I heard one was revived in the senate.
In my loyalty to “balance” when creating laws, I have requested for help or at least compromise from some of my colleagues on a few issues very important to me, but instead these individuals who I have helped with on their issues that they considered very important to them have in turn forced me to take their version of policy without an inch of compromise, and others have pushed floor amendments turning some of the bills upside down. In my eight year political career, I have never forced my position on them or forced a floor amendment on them. It is one thing to face opposition from dissidents or Republicans, who I have helped on bills as well, but it is much more painful when they are individuals within my political circle. Politics is dirty. The worse individuals will leak information to the media, talk from both sides of their mouth, attack your personal life, and do whatever it takes to knock you out. I have a handful of politicians I trust, and that is it. Many people are after something that they can get out of you, and forget about you as a person.
One night after a very difficult hearing in which I gave in to allowing a bill to pass with language I disagreed with, I went home and laid in bed. I thought of Rep. Bob Nakasone. When he was alive, I could always go to him for advice. He had a way of making you feel better without saying much. His presence alone was so comforting. I closed my eyes and reminisced of my mentor. Rep. Nakasone would tell me, “Eh Jon, … balance … gotta have balance.”
Despite my negative experiences in politics, I am determined to change it with positivity. What keeps me driven is my platform to diversify the economy with innovation, encourage project-based learning in our public schools, increase sustainability by pushing for more of our own agricultural and energy production, reduce violence, help those in need, lower the cost of healthcare, provide long-term care services, develop affordable housing, and most importantly, help all beings to achieve peace within. I am open to hearing all sides of an issue no matter if it is controversial or not, even though I know it is more politically safe to avoid controversial issues. After all, government is where we can all have a healthy discussion, or else we will not progress as a society. I believe in the goodness in humanity. Without hope, there is nothing to live for. Let’s take it to the next level! Do your best, tackle each challenge, then it is on to the next one. I wish you happiness, good heath, and success in all your positive endeavors!