"Please offer your comments so we can learn to be better legislators," said state House of Representatives Speaker Joseph M. Souki.
This request for comments and questions from the audience set the tone for the "Lawmakers Listen" community meeting hosted by state Rep. Kaniela Ing earlier this month at Kihei Charter School. The input gathered was for submission to the primary leadership of the House, some of whom were flown in for the evening from O'ahu.
Rep. Ing's intention was to "hear your concerns and [bring] along some very special guests. This is a big opportunity for South Maui residents to get their concerns directly to legislative leaders well ahead of the 2014 Legislative Session."
South Maui Rep. Kaniela Ing introduces some of Hawai’i’s state legislators to the community.
As Gene Zorro, chair of the charter school board, said in his introductory comments, "It's very rare to see all these people lined up at the same place at the same time, because they're all on different committees. It's a big honor for the charter school."
The audience of about 75 concerned citizens included members of a scout troop who were there to earn a civics merit badge.
Rep. Ing immediately expressed his gratitude to the visiting lawmakers and asked for "a round of applause for them coming out to help us on our little Neighbor Island."
Rep. Sylvia Luke, from O'ahu and on the Finance Committee, explained the importance of Honolulu legislators coming to Maui to see the wide-open spaces and the island unit as a whole and separate entity, realizing "the type of development you see in Honolulu may not be appropriate for the other islands."
While the community's questions and concerns were being collected, each representative took a moment to relay to Rep. Ing's constituents and neighbors their experience and satisfaction with South Maui's "rookie" representative.
You have an "active and emerging leader with Kaniela Ing," said Rep. Karen Awana. "You're very lucky to have him."
Rep. Scott Saiki said, "Ing has done a really good job for your community. He really pushed for Kihei High School from the beginning and wouldn't give up on it."
The legislature awarding Maui $130 million for the planning, design and construction of Kihei High School.
Vice Speaker John Mizuno added, "Ing is very passionate and willing to speak his mind. He is a powerhouse."
The most prevalent theme from audience questions concerned the possibility of the legalization of same-sex marriage in Hawai'i, said Rep. Mizuno.
This past June, the U.S. Supreme Court made a decision that the federal government would not be able to discriminate when it comes to marriage. The Supreme Court asked marriage to be defined on a state-by-state basis.
When asked outright if the legislators support same-sex marriage, House Speaker Souki spoke for all, saying the "House has not come to a decision yet and votes are changing almost daily." He added, "It's a very close vote at this point."
"The House does not have support at this point," Rep. Mizuno said. "We know this is an emotional issue," so there will be no pressure or influencing. "We're going to respect each member's vote and let them each follow their conscience."
Rep. Mizuno noted that many in the larger community have concerns that there should be exemptions from marriage-equality requirements to protect religious beliefs, for example, in the case of clergy and private property.
"There are many in the community who think we need to redefine marriage to include same-sex couples," Rep. Mizuno said.
Speaker Souki added, "There's a concern that the public hasn't spoken, so that's why we're here."
Another hot topic was sugarcane burning and Maui's air quality.
Rep. Ing replied, "Ironically, I just read an article that said that Kihei, Maui, has some of the cleanest air in the country."
He then acknowledged that many people are very concerned about the burning.
"Some people do have nonstop allergies," Rep. Ing said. "This issue always comes up. Good news is I have been meeting with HC&S and the people doing the cane burning on Maui. They're looking to have fewer burn days, and looking at harvesting without burning. An outright ban? That's not going to happen. I'll just tell you that straight-off. But there will be progress and change."
Rep. Souki admitted later that "Sugar's in a tenuous position right now." His understanding is that Mexico is going to loosen its standards and up its sugar production. "The future in sugar doesn't look that bright."
Rep. Souki then acknowledged what he believes to be the main problem.
"We have been working for many years to try to find a substitute crop," he said. "There isn't one right now. The bigger problem is, when you take away sugar, it will revert to what it was before--a desert."
Another concern raised concerned the coal and other "dirty energy" HC&S uses to produce energy to sell to Maui Electric Company (MECO).
An audience member asked, "Why are they buying dirty energy when they have plenty of clean energy, since wind power energy is being thrown away, as MECO admits?" Attendees clapped and waited for Rep. Souki's response. "They're constantly working to improve. They don't want to endanger anyone's health."
When asked about the regulation of pesticides sprayed onto the sugarcane fields, Rep. Saiki pointed out that "it's really the federal government that regulates pesticides. States can't interfere with those sorts of issues."
Other concerns surfaced, including the state Department of Education's use of funds and public hopes for an audit, the Steven Tyler bill, development in South Maui and the need for the community to get involved.
Rep. Ing cited the case of the "mega-mall"--the Pi'ilani Promenade retail center and Maui Outlets, asking, "Who came out on top? We did, not the big California developer."
Other issues raised included a stand in the House for food labeling for GMO products, and public concerns about improving crosswalks and increasing pedestrian safety.
Regarding marijuana legalization (medicinal and recreational), Rep. Souki said it isn't going to happen right away, although there has been a bill passed for medicinal purposes. But as far as recreational use, "We're going a little bit slow on that, to find out first what other states are doing before we take any action."
When asked if there is any chance of a moratorium on overhead power lines, Rep. Ing said the options for the proposed power lines on Pi'ilani are above ground, partly buried and further up the mountain.
"It was really heartening to be at this [MECO] meeting, Rep. Ing said. "They're looking at alternatives, including smart metering and battery stores throughout the community. They are also reevaluating the need for redundant power lines across South Maui--all good news for the renewable energy revolution." The audience responded with applause.
"The first step is to do all this the democratic way," Rep. Ing concluded. "That was one of the most surprising and happy things I learned this year. I realized pretty much all the decisions made came from conscience and intellect. Democracy works here in Hawai'i."