Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Aug. 8 Primary Election, Civil Beat asked candidates to answer some questions about where they stand on various issues and what their priorities will be if elected.
The following came from Becky Gardner, Democratic candidate for state House District 20, which includes St. Louis Heights, Palolo, Maunalani Heights, Wilhelmina Rise and Kaimuki. The other Democratic candidates are Jay Ishibashi, Jackson Sayama, and Derek Turbin.
1. Hawaii has been deeply affected by the coronavirus pandemic. Perhaps the biggest impact is to the economy and the tourism industry, which has been Hawaii’s biggest economic driver. Do you think state leaders have handled the response to the virus effectively, including the approach to testing and health care as well as the stay-at-home orders that have caused serious economic harm? What would you have done differently?
Many state leaders rose to the occasion; however, our early response was stuttered and uncoordinated — showing far too much allegiance to the tourism industry. As the voice of Hawaii’s residents rang clear, our public health efforts and comprehensive stay-at-home directives were rightfully cautious and strong. Hawaii residents’ collective ethic of community and care deserve much of the credit for our success.
While some of the economic harm is unavoidable — no business should have had to shut down. We needed an immediate moratorium on evictions and foreclosures — to ease the pressure on local businesses and working families, allowing them to focus on basic income, food, utilities and other essentials — empowering them with the means to pick up where they left off, and the purchasing power to keep our economy’s engine alive. They continue to bear this burden while legislators sit on desperately needed CARES money funded by our federal taxes.
To safely reopen, we need robust testing and contact tracing; “tourism bubbles” with other safe jurisdictions; only science-based exemptions for visitors testing negative before travel, and after mandatory 14-day quarantine.
Now more than ever, we need strong, compassionate leadership that prioritizes the needs of our working class and local businesses.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
We must reverse our regressive tax structure — where those with lowest income pay the highest tax rates, and vice versa. Even a “flat tax” rate is better than our current regressive system, which penalizes the lowest earners already struggling to survive.
We should tax real estate investment trusts (REITs) and look at the tax exemptions we’ve instituted; determine who benefits; why we are catering to them; ascertain the most likely response (not doomsday scenarios); and how much revenue we can recapture if eliminated. Achieving tax fairness to recapture taxes that large corporations and high-earners avoided will reduce the need to make budget cuts.
We should consider the overhead we can cut if more state workers are allowed to tele-work — the pandemic has taught us how.
New Zealand’s administration offered to cut their own pay by 20%. Likewise, I feel our governor and legislators should forego their pay raises before cutting our already inadequate salaries. State employees can’t afford a 20%, let alone 40% cut. We must not touch our teachers and first responders.
We should strongly consider the recommendations in the State Commission on the Status of Women’s Feminist Recovery Plan – as women unfairly bear the brunt given our income disparities.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
Diversifying Hawaii’s economy is critical, so we can protect our residents and industries in ways we can thrive — independent of supply chains we cannot control.
I’d like to explore all the legislative tools (appropriations, tax incentives, program initiatives, budget analysis and reallocation, task forces and research studies, etc.) to support and incentivize new industries and initiatives that:
• Diversify agriculture – with a focus on Hawaii’s food security (e.g. ulu/breadfruit; artisan products, like chocolate, coffee, etc.);
• Grow green tech and clean energy generation;
• Subsidize education, training, transportation and living expenses to encourage and equip Hawaii residents to take green jobs that support new agricultural and energy initiatives;
• Support innovation and intellectual property — and otherwise make it affordable for knowledge workers and digital nomads to thrive in Hawaii;
• Bolster university-based research and programs to grow our own local talent and world-class expertise in culturally and environmentally-sensitive industries that thrive in Hawaii;
• Foster the creative industry – art, film production, design work, etc.;
• Identify and encourage scaling businesses in sustainable industries to locate and blossom in Hawaii; and
• Cultivate a “buy local” culture so profit dollars and incomes are more likely circulated within the state.
4. 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? Would you support reductions in benefits including in pension contributions for public employees in light of virus-related budget shortfalls?
The pandemic and its economic aftermath will undermine any previous plans we had to meet our unfunded liabilities. A single-payer health-care system would cut these costs significantly.
I am an underpaid civil servant. Our hard-fought benefits were agreed upon in advance. The state owes us those benefits, and it would be immoral and illegal to revoke them — to leave thousands of employees with reduced benefits when we need them most in our recovery from the pandemic. This will cut even deeper if they reduce our pay — which is already so low, falling short from enabling us to survive in Hawaii’s economy.
It would be different if the state was doing everything in our power to maximize revenue and reduce waste, but we are missing the boat on plenty of easy ways to increase revenue, like borrowing at historically low rates with our very favorable credit rating. There is gross wasteful spending in every department and we need to examine our operations before undercutting and destabilizing the people (and their families) who keep our government running.
5. The state’s virus response effort has exposed deep rifts within the top levels of government, including between the Legislature and Gov. David Ige. He will be in office two more years, so what would you do to ensure public confidence in Hawaii’s government officials and top executives?
Waste, corruption and nepotism are crippling the state and disenfranchising everyday people, while benefiting our social-political elite. Fighting this and demanding an accountable government that works for the people is a huge reason why I’m running.
Public confidence is something that has to be earned, by doing things that inspire public confidence. Filling task forces and press conferences with industry CEOs does not inspire public confidence. Delaying the inevitable shutdown until we had a petition with tens of thousands of signatures does not inspire public confidence. Our leaders can regain public confidence by prioritizing the public’s needs — like food, child care and rent relief.
We need to encourage policies and systems that promote transparency and civic engagement — like Oahu’s neighborhood board system; citizen’s jury initiatives; opportunities for remote testimony; and a whole host of other measures which encourage community input and government accountability. We must not undermine these measures (as reflected in question 8).
6. Recent deaths of citizens at the hands of police are igniting protests and calls for reform across the country, primarily aimed at preventing discrimination against people of color. How important do you see this as an issue for Hawaii? What should be done to improve policing and police accountability throughout the state? Do you support police reform efforts such as mandatory disclosure of misconduct records by police agencies and adequate funding for law enforcement oversight boards that have been established in recent years?
Racial discrimination in policing is manifest in a less overt ways in Hawaii. However, it’s telling to look at the racial make-up of our incarcerated populations. Although racism here is more insidious, it still must be addressed. We must examine our biases and policies so that we can honor our claim to be the “aloha state” and respect diversity.
The departure of two upstanding, reform-minded commissioners is troubling. Our oversight boards must be empowered to actually provide oversight — to lend to the legitimacy and accountability of these institutions. Otherwise, funding oversight commissions that are effectively shackled is mere wasteful window dressing.
I support greater “community” policing efforts and the reallocation of funds for programming that encourages the use of social programs, mental and physical health professionals, and restorative and rehabilitative justice.
Mandatory misconduct disclosure is a small step to achieve the justice reform we desperately need. We need to implement restorative justice principles at every stage in the system from elementary school disciplinary proceedings to post-incarceration reintegration programs. We need more social workers, more homeless outreach and more drug treatment programs — not riot gear or armored vehicles for police to use against our own citizens.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
There are pros and cons to the citizens initiative process. On one hand, it allows citizens to circumvent a stalemated Legislature. On the other hand, corporations and special interests, who don’t necessarily have the best interests of the people in mind, can exploit this process. However, after watching it play out in California, Washington and Oregon, almost every issue put on the ballot ended up with the decision working in favor of the people.
In the alternative, we should explore the use of citizens’ juries, on which I had the opportunity to participate as part of a project of the Public Policy Center at the University of Hawaii Manoa.
The public is extremely frustrated with our state Legislature because it is failing its responsibility to pass laws that help and protect us. We must find all the ways we can to reclaim our power and let the people make some decisions about our future.
8. Hawaii’s public records law mandates that public records be made available whenever possible. Gov. David Ige suspended the open government laws under an emergency order during the pandemic. Do you agree or disagree with his action? What would you do to ensure the public has access to open meetings and public records in a timely fashion?
Government transparency is of paramount importance and a major reason why I’m answering a call to run for office. I don’t think it was necessary, nor well-received for the governor to suspend these laws in his emergency orders. This move was far too broad, and a dangerous reflex. I am glad that much of this was later walked back.
Our open government laws were hard-fought for years by many public advocates. I would have much rather seen us take the approach that Illinois and many other states have in increasing openness in government — especially in light of the pandemic.
However, we have an opportunity now to figure out how we’re going to manage open government policies so we can assure adequate transparency while also allowing for rapid response and management — should another catastrophic event occur.
Moreover, in this day and age, we have the technology to make all meetings and records digitally available to the public. I am running to reflect the public’s political will to do so.
9. What should Hawaii be doing to prepare for the effects of climate change, including sea level rise and threats to the reefs? How big of a priority is this for you?
Addressing climate change and preparing for a climate catastrophe is a huge priority for me and my young daughters, whom I keep in mind when making all my decisions. Given our tremendous vulnerabilities, as revealed by the pandemic and the fact that we import most of our fuel and food, swift action is imperative.
We must pass legislation that takes on managed retreat, increases sustainable development standards and implements Green New Deal-style workforce development programs to bring Hawaii to the forefront of climate mitigation and innovation.
Perhaps the most impactful measure I would strongly advocate for is to institute a carbon tax. This would drive the state and private industry to adapt to using alternative energy sources, as it will no longer be profitable to use fossil fuels. This will also help increase the carbon capture and sequestration market, as removing carbon from the atmosphere will be cheaper than paying the fee. The creation of this price signal will also bring billions of private and state investment dollars into research and development of alternative energy sources.
We should also institute green fees and severely limit visitor activity that threaten our coral reefs.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
I think the most pressing issue is assuring the economic viability of so many of District 20’s residents. Many have lost their jobs, aren’t able to pay for food or shelter, have not received or are ineligible for unemployment; and about to lose their family’s health insurance. Moreover, far too many of Kaimuki’s small, unique local businesses — the pride of my community — are at risk of closing shop.
We cannot let them become casualties of COVID-19. We must provide substantial economic relief to help them stay afloat. We need to provide grants and rent/lease moratoriums until they are able to operate at capacity.
I will also advocate strongly against austerity measures, and encourage the state to first borrow federal funds at the lowest possible interest rates available, since Hawaii has achieved its best credit rating ever. We need to assure the purchasing power of our working class to keep our economy afloat; and not further cripple them with pay cuts. Doing so will create more expensive problems for the state in health, shelter, and meeting our residents’ other basic needs.
I’m also very concerned about earth movement threatening the health and safety of Palolo residents in the Waiomao Road area.
11. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawaii’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawaii, to build on what we’ve learned and create a better state, a better way of doing things, what would you do? Please share One Big Idea you have for Hawaii. Be innovative, but be specific.
I am a strong proponent of the Green New Deal; and signed on to the letter from the Just Transitions Coalition to include regenerative farmers, indigenous groups, zero-waste experts and members of the Democratic Party of Hawaii Green New Deal Working Group to the Hawaii Economic & Community Recovery task force — which are initiatives that reimagine the way Hawaii is structured socially, economically and environmentally to assure our resilience, sustainability and food security.
However, I think one big, new, innovative idea I have for Hawaii is to establish “well-being” as a central goal and measurement for government policy, much like New Zealand has done by establishing a “Well-being Budget.” Other countries are doing the same. Matters relating to mental health, education, child poverty, family violence, sustainability and economic opportunities should be factored in as dominant considerations for proposed legislation; as well as qualitative analyses of our economy — before we rely on abstract concepts like “GDP,” which reflect very little about quality of life.