Current Thoughts (Mostly Hawaii)

Hole in the plot

As voters enter the last week of mail-in voting, with the election to be called on or right after the 13th of August, evaluation of whom to vote for is much underway.

Even for this blogger, who looks at the wide spectrum of Hawaii politics, there is always one or two candidates that seem to pop up as “more interesting” than others. One of them is Patrick Branco, a candidate for Congress for Hawaii’s second district, in the House of Representatives.

Patrick Branco with then-Vice President Joe Biden at the State Dept. The flag in the back is the “Chiefs and Other Diplomatic Missions” flag. PC: Patrick Branco for Congress website, “media center” link, photos link at flickr.

He is running to replace Kai Kahele, who is leaving Congress and is vying for Hawaii Governor. Branco is currently a State House Representative from the Windward side of Oahu.

The reason why, for this blogger, Patrick Branco is a more interesting candidate is the fact that his background, before becoming the Windward representative, took him all over the world as a member of the distinguished U.S. State Department Diplomatic Corps. According to his bio, and his introductory presentation, he touts his time as a diplomat, serving in such challenging areas as Columbia and Pakistan, and Venezuela.

Areas, needless to say, which one could suspect that only the most seasoned diplomats are sent to due to the nature of that country’s relationship with the United States. Furthermore, those are countries which, for those working in worldwide organizations, are sent with added insurance for the sake of life and limb.

These are also assignments and experiences that lift regular diplomats to superstar status in some cases, being able to deal with any kind of diplomatic crisis since he would have experienced some of the highest levels of them.

And one would think that after all this, he would have his pick of the litter when it came to assignments at the State Department, being a Native Hawaiian serving the country in other far-flung places. Let alone, he would have job security in the diplomatic corps, which is a highly coveted job by many.

But after getting in, which for many requires passing one of the most challenging tests ever given by a governmental department, he decided to leave it, come back to Hawaii and of all things, become an elected official.

Hey, to each their own…people have their reasons as to why they leave a career. Military people do it all the time. Even CEOs who have reached the pinnacle of their career sometimes choose to go on another path.

A paragraph break, while it looks blank, also could contain a lot of details on decisions Branco made between working for the State Dept. and the State Legislature. It’s that gap that voters should wonder “what’s going on?”
PC: Screenshot from Patrick Branco for Congress website

But most times, if one asks “why did you leave?” you get an answer. The reasons are varied and in most cases the asker of the question understands. So a question that comes up is “why did Patrick Branco leave the State Department’s Diplomatic Corps?”

If you think that you will find the answer in Branco’s campaign website“about” section, what you will find instead is a hole in the plot between the times when he served as a diplomat to the time he was elected a Representative. When one reads it, you cannot help but wonder “okay, what happened with the State Dept. you said nothing about leaving and coming back”.

And while there might be an excellent reason for leaving and coming back, to serve in elected office, the fact that the candidate didn’t bother to put in one sentence to explain that should make a voter wonder “eh, what’s going on?”

It’s even more perplexing when one knows how hard it is to get into the Diplomatic Corps in the first place. For the uninitiated, the test linked earlier is the one the State Department issues across the nation, sometimes just once a year, which prospective individuals take. The test is not the hardest, but getting a high enough score to place is one of those “many will apply, few will be chosen” situations.

Some choose to take it multiple times, hoping that both practices make perfect and that their score is high enough to make it beyond the threshold. This blogger did it three times and never made it high enough to go into the next phase of selection. For Branco, to have both passed that level of test, serve at the level he did, and then to just leave, come back, live in his grandmother’s home where the craft room doubled as his bedroom, without an explanation as to why is interesting.

With the stakes being that the House Congressional 2 seat has been, as of late, the position where elected officials to that seat see it as a place to leapfrog into higher office (Tulsi Gabbard for President; Kai Kahele for Governor), one can surmise that whoever wins this seat they will most likely get the itch to go higher, sooner or later.

So isn’t it fair to ask, now, for the full story on why these candidates do what they did in their professional careers? And not leave the voter wondering why there is this weird plot hole when running for such a high-level seat in the State of Hawaii?

Just askin.

Picking apart the $50 fee

Joshua B. Green,
PC: Lieutenant Governor of Hawaii Josh Green (cropped)
by ChelseaLockridge
 CC BY-SA 4.0 license:

It would seem that during the “Super Debate” that happened on Thursday, the 21st of July, at the Council for Native Hawaiian Advancement convention, Josh Green, candidate for nomination for Governor in the Democratic Party, had to be schooled as to what Hawaii is.

It started with Green coming up with a policy statement to address “over-tourism”. In his presentation, he outlined a long-studied “green fee” idea of charging tourists a fee to come to Hawaii. He then proceeded to add to the idea by outlining how much money the state would receive, and other places that are doing it.

For the readers’ benefit, here is what Green said,

GREEN: A recommendation, and I put up a 10-point plan on climate change to have a climate impact fee, which would be $50 for every individual that travels to the State of Hawaii over age 12. This can generate between $350 to 400 million dollars per year, and that will be the mechanism we use to pay for the roads that are falling into the water, to pay for moving hotels back, though those investors should pay for it themselves, in partnership with the state for state resources. This is the way to also to shrink over tourism because we have too many people simply coming to Hawaii.

Kahele countered Green with this response,

KAHELE: (asked by the moderator what would be the policy as governor) I need to address what the Lt. Governor said because he said now three times this “climate impact fee” he talks about. We aren’t even sure that it’s constitutional, whether it violates the US Constitution to levy a climate impact fee against a tourist that comes to Hawaii. That does not help to reduce tourism, that just continues to tax the tourist already coming here. That is not going to dis-incentivize tourists coming here. So I think that this is something we need to address.

Unconstitutional he says? Green comes back with the only answer that he could try to give, to counter. That set up a back and forth that even a campaign manager would be facepalming if they were managing Green’s campaign,

GREEN (in response to Kahele) It is constitutional, it’s also being done in countries across the world, Europe just started it as well….
KAHELE (in response to Green) We are not Europe

GREEN: Yeah, I am aware of who we are, Congressman, we are Hawaii, and I also spoke to the President of Palau…
KAHELE We are not Palau

To the reader at this point, one can assume that Green either thinks Hawaii is something else besides a State in the United States, subject to the Constitution of the United States. Or that he is signaling his desire that Hawaii, for this debate, is all of the sudden its own country. Well, Vicky Cayetano was asked about this. She took the opportunity to remind Green of what Hawaii was,

CAYETANO (asked to provide her opinion on the exchange) Yes well I would just like to comment, and I think what the Congressman is saying, Lt. Governor, is while well-intentioned, Hawaii is not a country, this may be something at the federal level that has to be looked at. Europe, Palau, those are all countries, so I’m not sure if it is constitutional. I think that is the point he is making.

To those that are informed and understanding of the laws of Hawaii, what Green faced from the responses of Kai and Vicky was nothing less than a bump-set-spike not only on the idea, but the bigger issue that he understands what the law will provide, and not provide, in this idea.

Let us dig a little deeper into what Green is looking at, and what the source document says.

BACK IN SEPTEMBER 2021, a report entitled “Hawaii Visitor Green Fee, A report to the Hawaii Tax Commission” was issued to address what a green fee would look like for Hawaii. It was written either by or for an entity called “Green Fee Hawaii”. According to its website, is an organization advocating for the implementation of a fee for those entering Hawaii.

Many of the points made in this six-page report were picked up by entities like the University of Hawaii Economic Development Organization (UHERO), which cited the report in their report on the matter and promoted on the Green Fee Hawaii website.

It has been told to this blogger that the core report and the follow-up are what built Green’s policy on this matter. So in pointing out a “mother document” to all this, we’ll be citing here the Green Fee Hawaii report to the Tax Commission.

NOW ONE COULD SAY “ah, a paid-for, biased report that conveniently says that green fees for tourists coming to Hawaii are a good thing”. And for the uninitiated who only read the headlines, that could very easily be assumed. However, one piece that Green, UHERO, and Green Fee Hawaii are leaving out is one section of the report noting the reality of implementing a $50 a head green fee (emphasis added by the writer for reader focus),

In Hawai‘i, it is in theory legally permissible to charge visitors for use of natural resources, and existing jurisprudence and litigation have upheld this as the site level, for well-known sites such as Hanauma Bay. However, in practice the legality of implementing this approach at the state level is somewhat difficult and would have to thread a narrow implementation pathway in order to not run afoul of constitutional issues that protect the free movement of citizens, interstate commerce, and equal protections. The key implementation challenge, from a legal perspective, is the point of capture. This would have to be administered at the state level (e.g., via a mandatory system such as the Safe Travels system, or via a voluntary system), and would need to be implemented in such a way that does not restrict US citizen’s rights to travel or other fundamental issues such as opportunities for employment. A collection method that is residence-neutral (i.e., does not discriminate between residents versus non-residents) is in theory more valid, but this would create a burden on local residents. A differentiated fee schedule (i.e., visitors pay more than residents) may be viable, as numerous states, including Hawaii, already charge different rates for visitors versus residents for a variety of services and programs (e.g., tuition at the University of Hawai‘i). Additionally, it is illegal to add a “tax, fee, head charge, or other charge” on air commerce (i.e., plane tickets) due to the federal Anti-Head Tax Act. An airport authority tax could be levied on tickets but those funds must be restricted to supporting the operating costs of the airport and cannot be used for natural resources more broadly.

SO WHAT IT BOILS DOWN TO is that if Green becomes governor, and he wants to implement a Hawaii tourist entry fee, he would have to find a way to get around these items of law. The first is the US Constitution itself in the Commerce Clause – article 1, section 8 of the Constitution.

The other is the Anti-Head Tax Act (49 U.S. Code § 40116 – State taxation) which says,

Prohibitions.—Except as provided in subsection (c) of this section and section 40117 of this title, a State, a political subdivision of a State, and any person that has purchased or leased an airport under section 47134 of this title may not levy or collect a tax, fee, head charge, or other charge on—

(1)an individual traveling in air commerce;

(2)the transportation of an individual traveling in air commerce;

(3)the sale of air transportation; or

(4)the gross receipts from that air commerce or transportation.

The Consitution of the United States
PC: US Constitution by kjd
Creative Commons License CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Of course, this would assume that Josh Green realizes and understands that Hawaii is part of the United States and is subject to the federal laws that oversee the states, like the federal constitution which, in the State of Hawaii Constitution, it says in the preamble, “The Constitution of the United States of America is adopted on behalf of the people of the State of Hawaii.”

With this laid out, it’s clear to this humble blogger that, while Green has tried to win voters with an idea that sounds good to those who care, the woeful lack of understanding of the laws that regulate this, and even knowing what Hawaii is, could be notes of concern as voters check their boxes on their ballots.

Who wants to win – Republican edition

As the news rolled out about the most recent campaign finance reports, no one would blame you if you thought the only party running any campaigns in Hawaii had a “D” next to their name.

“D” means Democrat.

The articles on the reports have focused a great deal on the three top candidates for the Democratic nomination for Governor. And, interestingly, articles seen focused mostly on the fact that one of the candidates – Vicky Cayetano – has loaned herself an eyepopping $1.1 million to stay competitive in the race.

But what about the Republican candidates running for the nomination to run against whomever the Democrat is? What about their financials. Well, once again, the assumption is that if the Democrats are getting all the money – with folks like Green getting almost $2 million – one would be thinking the Republican candidates have nothing more than a few thousand in their accounts.

Well, you’d be kinda wrong. Surprisingly at least two candidates are showing, at least to this blogger, financial strength in their candidacy for the Republican nomination.

And, to wit, it’s two candidates that didn’t make this bloggers dance card when thinking “who is going to take in a haul for the nomination”.

BJ Penn
PC: “190402-D-SW162-2229” by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

FIRST OFF, let’s lay out the main nominees for the Republican nomination for Governor. In no particular order, we have former Lt. Governor Duke Aiona, outgoing Honolulu Councilwoman Heidi Tsuniyoshi, former Mixed Martial Arts fighter “BJ” Penn, Kingdom Builders founder Gary Cordery, and for purposes of recognizing they got their names in first as those seeking nominees, Paul Morgan and Lynn Mariano.

The two that are reporting real money hauls are Gary Cordery and BJ Penn. Let us break down the two. For the last six months, Cordery has taken in $92,204, and Penn got a whopping $225,742 in the same period. As of the report, Penn has $92,651 left in the bank, and Cordery has $20,260.

But here is the interesting thing about these numbers. One, Penn, loaned himself $47,694, Cordery loaned himself no money. Second, if you take the loan out of Penn’s total take, his donation take was still more than Cordery’s for the last six months – $178,048 vs. $92,204.

(If you want to see for yourself, go to the Campaign Spending Commission of Hawaii website and look up “View reports” in the search home screen)

Gary Cordery
PC: ThinkTech Hawaii, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

In looking at the list of who has given, and what has been spent, Cordery has been spending a good chunk of his money on political data and analytics (i360 LLC), and a great deal on bank fees (Anedot – an online donation platform) that probably have to do with the fees that one pays when giving online. For those giving money, a lot of self-employed individuals and even a professor from a community college gave him $4,000 (who knew a community college professor could give that much?)

Penn has a different set of donors and what he is spending on. For those who gave, Dana White of UFC gave him $6,000 (the max); several family members have given 4-figures of different values; the Executive Director of Melaleuca and a swath of people spanning from the Hawaii Island and a few UFC gyms on the mainland.

On the spending side – fees related to donations (Stripe), several neighbor island flights (Hawaiian Airlines), and $27,000 to a Washington State PR firm.

So each is spending on the things they need to to look alive and serious about this campaign. And looking alive and serious, as a Republican running for anything, already helps re-write one of the many detrimental perceptions that Republicans have, in Hawaii, in running for any office. But we will have to see if the other candidates can tap into money sources to make it a real more-than-two-player race.

Read past entries of Stan Fichtman and PoliticsHawaii.com!

What am I listening to?

These are the Podcasters that I am listening to, try them out!

Tim Pool (on YouTube)

Pod Save America (on YouTube)

Sargon of Akkad - Carl Benjamin (on YouTube)

Who am I reading/getting news from

I am very choosy as to where I get my news from, here are some dependable sources I refer to when reading up on topics

The Atlantic

CNBC

Civil Beat (Hawaii on-line newspaper)

Honolulu Star Advertiser (mostly paywalled, but you get free headlines)

Beat of Hawaii (Tourism based news source from Kauai)

Twitter Feed

Here are my current thoughts of things going on.

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