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 Tom Brower, Democratic candidate for state House District 22, which includes Waikiki and Ala Moana. The other Democratic candidate is Adrian Tam.
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?
Grappling with our first pandemic in modern times, state officials chose to err on the side of caution. With the information government had to go on at the time, and without a vaccine, it may have done reasonably well limiting the spread of the virus.
But government should have adapted as quickly as reliable information on the virus was made available to open the economy. We now realize moderate social distancing, not lockdowns which for the most part delay the pandemic and prevent herd immunity, are what has worked best.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
In crisis mode, government should focus on basic needs like health care, housing, education and public safety.
To balance the estimated $2.3 billion budget deficit over the next two years, the initial, practical method is to use rainy day funds (about $400 million), cut vacant positions and return unspent money that went to departments for projects that aren’t time sensitive. I support the Legislature authorizing the governor to borrow up to $2.1 billion from the federal Municipal Liquidity Facility to keep local government operating.
Currently, I don’t support tax increases and only support furloughs as a last resort.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
Besides tourism, Hawaii’s growth sectors include technology, energy innovation, transportation, farming, entertainment and the military. The state should provide reasonable tax incentives and accommodations to expand these industries since they continue to show promise.
The best way to diversify the economy for non-government industries is to have a fair, predictable tax system that is not complicated and one that businesses can plan long-term around.
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?
Ensuring the long-term viability of the Employer Union Health Benefits Trust Fund and the Employee Retirement System is our biggest budgetary challenge. These benefits are guaranteed by the state constitution and must be honored. While more needs to be done, I am optimistic that we are on the right track.
Over the past nine years, the Legislature has passed several key bills, which need time before their effects can be felt: Act 163 (2011) reduced the amount of pensions for new employees hired after June 30, 2012, and increased the age at which they can begin receiving their pensions. Act 268 (2013) established a schedule to phase-in increasing public employer contributions. Act 017 (2017) updates the ERS laws and addresses the issue of pension “spiking.” Last year the Legislature passed Act 053, which establishes a clear statutory basis for the recovery of overpayments of ERS benefits.
We should continue monitoring the outcomes and be open to making further changes, as needed, in light of the COVID.
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?
It is imprudent to suggest that legislators should blindly follow the governor’s policies to ensure public confidence in Hawaii’s government. The point of having a system of checks and balances is to ensure a balance of power — and always with the public’s benefit in mind. It is unfortunate that the clashes are sometimes played out in the media, where the focus shifts from the issues to the animosity.
Being honest with the people is the best way to build public confidence. Since being elected, I have worked to be open and honest with my constituents, even when I know the response is disagreeable to them.
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?
Police brutality against people of color here is less of an issue than on the mainland, thanks to our “melting pot” culture and strength of our aloha spirit. From my experience, many police officers have conducted themselves honorably and responsibly — my only criticism has been the lack of manpower to enforce the laws. That said, it is important to learn from the tragedies of other major cities.
I support mandatory disclosure of misconduct records by police agencies, re-evaluating standards of conduct, and increasing transparency surrounding officer misconduct and the inappropriate use of force. I have voted in support of the Law Enforcement Standards Board (Act 220, 2018).
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Yes. The citizens initiative process is meant to address the problem of government action that does not reflect the majority of the people’s will. Issues that are controversial (such as legalizing gambling or recreational marijuana) or routinely disregarded (such as community noise control) would be suitable for this.
The nonprofit VOTE ranked Hawaii in the bottom in voter turnout for the 2018 election. We need to look for new ways to get people excited about politics. I hope that the citizens initiative will encourage more people to get informed, participate in the legislative process, and take part in shaping 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?
I disagree. I thought it was premature.
Reasonable requests for public records should be available and inexpensive to access, especially when it serves the public. (There needs to be clear criteria defining what’s “reasonable.”) Part of the problem is the people who take advantage of this and make an unlimited number of unreasonable requests.
Another part of the reason some information is difficult to access is less malevolent: State agencies with antiquated systems for record keeping make procuring information difficult. We really need to move into the 21st century, away from paper and filing cabinets and into cloud storage. As government modernizes itself, hopefully we can see some improvements in this area and others.
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?
I believe the climate has always been changing; we’re just becoming more aware of it. To make a bigger impact in reducing the effects of climate change, we should be focusing on air travel pollution, which produces about 2% of the world’s man-made emissions of carbon dioxide from airplanes burning fuel. It is interesting that some environmentalists want to focus on efforts with less impact, such as car emissions.
We must continue having the difficult conversation about our coastal strategy and its effect on our economy. Should we withdraw from the shoreline or strengthen coastal infrastructure? Should we wait and see what happens?
We must continue to work toward 100% renewable energy by 2045 and become carbon neutral. Equally important is that nearly every major country in the world do the same.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
I regularly receive complaints about the homeless living on/and preventing usage of our beach parks, sidewalks and bus stops; trashing or vandalizing the landscaping; harassing passersby; publicly drinking or doing drugs, among other related health and safety concerns. Not all homeless individuals want to be housed and/or employed. It is not “compassionate” to allow them to stay on the streets. Enforcement of laws and park rules have been lax.
We need realistic solutions that include both compassionate and “tough love” strategies working simultaneously. Since 2010, I have been advocating as the “father of safe zones” for government designated areas for the homeless to camp — as a temporary, cost-effective solution until long-term alternatives (like more affordable housing) are implemented. Otherwise, there will continue to be illegal camping everywhere.
I also strongly support expanding Housing First for the chronic homeless, making public restrooms available 24/7 and creating a vagrancy law to protect the public’s immediate health and safety.
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.
The pandemic has highlighted the slow, bureaucratic nature of government.
My one big idea was inspired by the governor’s stakeholder meetings for affordable housing, which I participated in as chair of the Housing Committee. Here, representatives from private and public sectors dialogue about what is not working right and how to fix it. The meetings become very involved at times because the challenges involved territorial battles, construction costs, wages and understaffed departments. You realize that a problem in one part of the system affects the entire process.
This concept could be expanded to any issue where there are problems, such as teacher shortages, aging in place and child-care affordability.
People need to sit down together, understand each other’s perspectives, find common ground, and compromise on solutions for the greater good. This is how we can overcome the bureaucracy that entrenches even our best public servants and rebuild government. For me this was a big idea inspired by a first small step.