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 Jackson Sayama, Democratic candidate for state House District 20, which includes St. Louis Heights, Palolo, Maunalani Heights, Wilhelmina Rise and Kaimuki. The other Democratic candidates are Becky Gardner, Jay Ishibashi 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?
While decisions like the stay-at-home order and the two-week quarantine were difficult sacrifices, Hawaii’s relatively low infection rate is a testament to the state’s careful management of an unprecedented and rapidly developing COVID-19 crisis. Despite these favorable results, the miscommunication between state and city leaders has frustrated families and businesses desperate for a unified voice. As Hawaii begins to reopen, state leaders must clearly communicate how it will establish robust safety protocols for visitors, so residents and businesses can return to work with confidence.
The underlying issue of Hawaii’s economic sustainability is the product of political inaction to wean the economy off of tourism. It’s high time we build a Hawaii that works for our families by investing strategically in developing renewable energy technology, strengthening interisland broadband networks, growing our agriculture industry and modernizing school curriculum.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
Measures of austerity should only be considered after taking full advantage of available federal funding from the Federal Reserve Municipal Liquidity Facility ($2.1 billion), the Paycheck Protection Program ($487 million), and the CARES Act ($1.8 billion). These funds will help sustain essential services like DLIR’s unemployment benefits process, DHHL’s rental relief program, and DOH’s COVID-19 monitoring. In addition to federal funds, Hawaii must explore alternatives to increase state revenue, such as increasing property tax for non-resident homeowners and eliminate tax incentives for businesses that generate little economic benefit.
If such measures prove to be insufficient to address Hawaii’s budget shortfalls, state leaders, led by the governor, should take appropriate salary cuts before cutting salaries and positions of public employees.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
Ultimately, a diversified economy means growing local, innovative industries to employ local, high-skilled workers. As representative, I will encourage promising research and its commercialization through coordination with the University of Hawaii and business leaders, invest in securing broadband connections across the islands and promote the development and innovation of renewable energy technology. As capital resources become scarce, the state must pursue more public-private partnerships to invest in innovative projects.
While growing new jobs in innovative industries, Hawa’i must invest in modernizing the school curriculum to prepare our students to take these jobs. Despite great efforts by our public school teachers, schools have struggled under burdensome mandates and limited resources for even the most basic school supplies. However, faced with greater restrictions from COVID-19, schools must work with the community to continue students’ education. As a candidate, I’ve worked with the Jarrett Middle School Foundation and the Palolo Housing to connect students with computers available in the Ohana Learning Center. Just as I continue to work with Jarrett Middle School, I will collaborate with community organizations to better allocate resources toward developing Hawaii’s future workforce.
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?
Despite the Legislature’s efforts to increase its contribution to the state’s $25.7 billion in unfunded liabilities from the Hawaii Employees Retirement System (ERS) and the Employer-Union Health Benefits Trust Fund (EUTF), Hawaii must make hard decisions to avoid failing to honor pension obligations.
For years, the state has deferred payroll contributions to the ERS to fund other, more immediate needs. As a result, the state is projected to spend more than half of its annual budget towards the ERS and EUTF, which will divert critical funds from public services like education, health, and social services, and public safety. To avoid such cuts, I would explore additional sources of revenue as mentioned previously to make up for virus-related budget shortfalls and reassessing tax exemptions.
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?
As a member of my community’s neighborhood board, I understand transparent communication and active community engagement are essential components to restore the public’s trust in our government. Too often decisions that affect the community are determined unilaterally without input and consent from residents and businesses.
As a representative, I will hold myself accountable to serve as an effective government liaison for my community by regularly attending neighborhood boards and making myself available to the concerns of residents.
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?
With ongoing protests against racial injustice and the recent resignation of two reformed-minded members of the Honolulu Police Commission, Hawaii must reassess its policing oversight and criminal justice system. To hold police accountable, Hawaii should provide adequate resources and greater authority to law enforcement oversight boards, so they can effect meaningful change and provide the public with opportunities to ask questions of the police. I would also support mandatory disclosures of misconduct records by police agencies.
The over-representation of Native Hawaiians in Hawaii’s prisons is a clear indication that Hawaii’s criminal justice system is not immune to systemic discrimination. Addressing this injustice will require a multifaceted, long-term effort to improve education equality, invest in DHHL, strengthen public health, and transition away from incarceration toward rehabilitation programs.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
No, I would not support creating a statewide citizens initiative process. Despite the argument that a citizens initiative process would be more democratic, it is vulnerable to the influences of special interest groups and doesn’t include the deliberative process that exists in Hawaii’s constitutional framework for a representative democracy.
To ensure a more democratic legislative process, I will focus on increasing public participation in the legislative process by informing legislative efforts and neighborhood board meetings and by making myself available to the concerns of my constituents.
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?
While I understand the logistical challenges to produce public records during a time government employees cannot access necessary files, I believe Hawaii must modernize its online infrastructure to ensure public records are made available even during a crisis. The application of modern technologies should be expanded into all levels of government to ensure streamlined operations and transparency of public records. The continued use of antiquated systems will further jeopardize the public’s faith in the government to serve with integrity and efficiency.
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?
Flooding and sea-level rise exacerbated by climate change pose an immediate and significant threat to the health and safety of residents, the economy, and the environment. Hawaii must actively pursue flood mitigation projects like the Ala Wai Flood Control Project, which protects low-lying residents, businesses, and infrastructure from anticipated major flooding events.
We must also identify at-risk coastal areas and explore long-term policy measures like a carbon tax to promote Hawaii goal to transition toward a 100 percent renewable energy grid by 2045. As a representative, I will work with my community to ensure the Ala Wai Flood Control Project moves forward to strengthen Hawaii’s resiliency and meets the needs of the community.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Addressing the immediate economic recovery from COVID-19 is critical to getting families back to work and children back in school. To facilitate an expedient and safe recovery, I will dedicate all necessary resources to maintaining a robust system to track and contain the virus.
While it is yet to be determined what safety protocols will make up such a system, I would support working with pharmacies with COVID-19 testing capabilities and airlines to incentivize visitors to be tested prior to travel. In addition, I would support continued investment into the state’s capital improvement projects to provide work to those laid off and strengthen Hawaii’s infrastructure.
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.
Having studied and lived in China and Japan, I know Hawaii is perfectly positioned to be an economic and diplomatic nexus for the Pacific powers. While attracting new business opportunities to Hawaii, our communities can explore different solutions and systems to integrate and apply to local issues.
We can lay the foundation for this change by developing our current sister city relationships with Pacific powers and amending the Jones Act, which would open up our economy. Hawaii can be so much more than a tourist destination, but a bridge between two countries that can build a cooperative relationship to address global issues like climate change.