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Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 4 general election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions.
The following came from Jill Tokuda, a Democratic candidate for state senator for District 24. Republican Michael Danner, who did not respond to the questionnaire, is also running.
District 24 covers Ahuimanu, Heeia and Kaneohe.
Name: Jill N. Tokuda
Office: State Senate, District 24
Profession: State senator; program development and communications consultant
Education: Graduate of James B. Castle High School; B.A. in International Relations and a Minor in Japanese Studies from George Washington University
Community organizations: Hawaii P-20 Council; board member, Joint Venture Education Forum; Hawaii commissioner, Education Commission of the States; longtime volunteer with Lanakila Meals on Wheels, Kiwanis Club of Kaneohe, PACT Kaneohe Community Family Center and Friends of Kailua High School.
1. Why are you running for the Hawaii Legislature?
As the mother of two young boys, I believe it is important for us as parents to lead by example and work hard to lay the foundation for the preferred future we want for our children. This is what motivates me as a public servant, and grants me perspective as we work to bring people together to address the challenges and opportunities before us.
Working side by side stakeholders and our community, I have made a commitment to open the doors of government that were held open to me many years ago, focusing on increasing access and involvement in the legislative process for all of our citizens.
I believe we must continually work to earn the trust of those we seek to serve, and always be mindful of the responsibility we have to ensure that their voices and their values are well represented.
2. Are you satisfied with the current plans to pay for the state’s unfunded liabilities? If not, how would you propose to meet pension and health obligations for public workers?
I believe the current plans to address the state’s unfunded liabilities are both aggressive and responsible, laying out a strategy to increase payments until 2019 and then maintaining it at that high level, while amortizing the total cost over 30 years to somewhat minimize the impact over future biennium budgets.
The real challenge will be to maintain the discipline and fortitude necessary to maintain funding levels as will be prescribed by law, reaching around $500 million annually, in order to stay on course. Given the serious nature of this issue and the implications it has for other essential functions of government, such as our bond rating, this will no doubt be a top priority for every administration and during each legislative session in the decades to come.
3. Local officials and advocates have worked to address homelessness for years, yet the crisis is growing. What proposals do you have for this complicated issue?
This has been a significant issue on the windward side for a number of years now, and one of my top priorities this past year was to get a more accurate Point in Time count for our area so that we could be considered for both resources and services. This year’s count was much more accurate than 2013, showing a more than doubling of the homeless population in our windward communities, however we know this is still likely a conservative figure. And this is probably the case in communities across our state.
Having worked closely with service providers, state agencies and our law enforcement officers to both get people off the streets and address confrontations in our communities, it has become apparent to me that access to localized services and shelter options are critically important.
They may not want to go there immediately. They may not even know they need the help. When that breakthrough moment does come, most will want to remain in the same community they are in. Once you have those service and shelter options available nearby, providers can begin to motivate individuals to get help at those sites where they can also get treatment. Right now, providers are limited when they go out and assist individuals in areas that lack their own centers and shelters, with their only options being to move them out of their community. This may not seem significant to some, but in many cases these individuals are suffering from dual diagnoses, whether it be mental illness or drug or alcohol abuse, and removing them from their comfort zone becomes yet another barrier to getting help.
As I have often done when developing education policy, we should also look at the current and best practice of other states and jurisdictions in regards to how they have humanely dealt with their homeless populations. Places like San Antonio and its Restoration Center, where it moved individuals from jail into a place where they could receive psychiatric and primary care services and drug or alcohol detox. It also provides housing and services for those suffering from mental illness, and job training and wrap-around services to clients.
We must also consider shelter from a number of different lenses. From temporary such as Housing First-type models, to affordable rentals and housing for our working individuals and families. Forty percent of Hawaii’s homeless are employed. Transitioning them into stable housing that can help them sustain and thrive in their current employment is critically important.
4. Where do you stand on labeling genetically engineered food and pesticide regulation? Are these public safety issues, or are the dangers exaggerated?
As Agriculture and Hawaiian Affairs chair, I was actively engaged in discussions of co-existence and looking at how we could work together to confront common threats like disease, invasive species and the threats faced by climate change (some already being felt in the Pacific) to preserving our best agricultural lands through the passage of Important Agricultural Lands legislation in 2008.
It is estimated that upwards of 70-80 percent of items in U.S. grocery stores contain genetically engineered (GE) ingredients. These GE products have been reviewed and are regulated by the USDA, and if the nutritional value differed from its conventional counterpart or if it contained an allergen that one would not expect, it would already need to be labeled. Based on these existing USDA policies, I do not believe additional labeling requirements are warranted, and any discussions of this issue are most appropriate at the federal level.
5. Hawaii’s cost of living is the highest in the country by many indicators. What can really be done to make things like housing, food and transportation less expensive?
As was answered in the question below, we need to look at ways to reduce energy prices as a means of increasing overall affordability for Hawaii businesses, residents and families.
I have also worked with our local farmers and agriculture stakeholders over the years to identify strategies to increase access to long-term leases, water, and the capital needed to invest in and sustain their operations, and have been a strong proponent for locally sourcing food for our government facilities to create large scale sustainable markets.
Our housing efforts needs to be viewed as a continuum. From public housing or Section 8 voucher-type programs that should be looked upon as transitional in nature, to supports for home ownership like the Hula Mae homebuyer loan program, to independent and assisted senior living options for our kupuna. As our community ages and changes, all will be required to meet their diverse needs.
In order to meet these challenging housing and transportation demands, all efforts should be made to maintain density around the urban core as advocated for in various smart growth principles demonstrated in other states. If done right, this could result in lower transportation and housing costs for residents and reduce urban sprawl, as well as preserve prime agricultural land for food production and decreasing the need for importation.
6. Would you support using liquified natural gas as part of the state’s energy sources? And how can we improve the electrical distribution system so more renewable energy can be utilized to bring costs down?
There are many concerns, and justifiably so, for the use of and potential dependency on liquefied natural gas here in Hawaii. However, if it can be used as part of an overall strategy to help significantly reduce our state’s energy prices while we remain committed and work toward our clean energy goals, it would be an alternative to consider.
Passing HB1943 to focus efforts on grid modernization was a definite step in the right direction, but conversations in earnest need to be had among all involved parties to determine what specific technical investments and policy changes need to be made to support a diverse portfolio of renewable energy that result in lower costs for ratepayers and helps us work toward our clean energy goals.
7. Hawaii’s public records law mandates that public records be made available whenever possible. Yet many citizens are unable to afford the costs that state and local government agencies impose. Would you support eliminating search and redaction charges and making records free to the public except for basic copying costs?
I have been a strong supporter of Hawaii’s Open Data movement, and have been in discussions with stakeholders and advocates about how we provide access to legislative data and how we might be able to work together to increase participation in government and overall transparency. I have also piloted the use of statewide videoconferencing testimony in my Education Committee as a means of increasing access and transparency, and have been recognized nationally for the use of Twitter and Google+ hangouts to engage with both constituents and interface with colleagues across the country.
8. Are you satisfied with the way Hawaii’s public school system is run? How can it be run better?
First, we can always do better and must always strive to improve our service to the public in every aspect of government.
That being said, I believe in our schools. I believe in our teachers and our students, in our administrators and staff, parents and school community. I believe that we all have a role to play in supporting our students and our schools, and that if we collectively work to surround each child as a supportive network, no one will be left behind.
I am truly blessed in that I am not just a policy-maker, I am a proud product of our public schools and now a mother of a public school student. And yes, as someone once emailed me, I am here “because a public school teacher believed in me.”
It has been a very humbling and rewarding experience as the chair of the Senate Education Committee to not just create policy, but actually live and experience it as I’ve walked through the my children’s classrooms. With our sons going through preschool and now our oldest son in the first grade, I have been afforded the opportunity to gain valuable insight into not just how policies and resources look when they are disseminated and distributed into the field, but have been allowed to talk with those on the front lines who work with our students each day, giving me a better understanding of what works and what changes are required.
Listening and talking with as many stakeholders and advocates as possible in order to help improve our system and provide it with the supports necessary to best educate our children has been a top priority for me. One of the things I did last summer and fall was set out on a statewide listening tour, meeting with every public school principal in their community or via videoconference to talk about issues of concern for them, most specifically a survey done on the weighted student formula.
These discussions drive the actions and recommendations I have made, both in working directly with the department and in introducing a number of bills directly responding to their concerns. These legislative initiatives included addressing neighbor island repair and maintenance needs (for which we were able to get additional positions this past session to begin to address some of the backlog); redefining instructional time to increase flexibility and to center around student learning; completing the work of Act 51, especially in regards to school health functions and repair and maintenance needs; and looking at an innovative pilot project for modular design buildings to increase classroom and program space on school buildings.
From those discussions, there was also a desire to increase specific supports coming from the Complex Area such as in the areas of facilities and information technology. This was further affirmed when our committee had a videoconference briefing with principals participating in the Common Core Digital Curriculum Pilot Project, and they noted the support they received from complex and state level as being critical to their success.
This past session, we were able to provide 10 positions for information technology to the complex areas, which was a good start. However, if we are to ensure progress in areas of concerns that the legislature has been critical on, such as school bus transportation and school food service in recent years, close and continuous monitoring will need to take place. The department must be critical of its existing capacity and ability to deliver services as the 10th largest school district in the country. We must constantly be asking the question if we are operationally functioning at 21st century standards to best meet student needs and to maximize our resources.
We have also been talking during this past interim with the DOE and the University of Hawaii at Manoa School of Nursing about their pilot initiative to increase the quality of health services available to our students through the placement of APRN’s in schools, and identifying ways that we can possibly look at this from a broader community health perspective. This is particularly important when you consider that access to care for many of our students in rural and underserved communities is a serious issue and can be a significant barrier to learning.
9. There is a desire to grow the economy through new development yet also a need to protect our limited environmental resources. How would you balance these competing interests?
We must involve and take into account the perspectives of all community stakeholders in discussions over any new development, while ensuring compatibility with existing state and county plans. Understanding the existing and future infrastructure needs of each community, and the relationship each community has to one another from a planning perspective, becomes critically important when seeking to achieve that balance between growth and the protection of our fragile and finite natural resources.
10. What other important issue would you like to discuss here?
• Development and support for a publicly funded early learning system in Hawaii. Similar to what has been established in the 40 other states that have already made such investments, it would be a mixed delivery system that would include both public preschool classrooms, partnerships with private providers and nonprofit organizations like Family Child Interactive Learning Programs (FCIL) to most effectively stretch tax payer dollars.
• Improve public health and increase access to care through innovative community-based solutions.
• Strengthen partnerships between industries, businesses and nonprofit organizations and our educational leaders to maximize opportunities at all levels to prepare our students to be competitive in our global economy.
• Creation of a legislative package of supports for working women and families.