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 Frederick Fogel, Democratic candidate for state House District 3, which includes Hilo, Keaau, Kurtistown and Volcano. The other Democratic candidates are Shannon Matson and Richard Onishi.
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?
Hindsight is always 20-20. Given what leaders knew by consulting with experts, overall they did a fairly good job handling the C-virus. The relatively minor impact on Hawaii, a tourist destination that accommodates thousands of visitors daily from around the world, is testimony to that.
Instead of talking about what I would have done differently, let’s look at what they should be doing from here on out. Immediately lift stay-at-home orders. Implement a comprehensive “contract tracing” program to help thwart flare-ups. Make a testing program available to the public upon demand without a doctor’s approval, preferably at a low, subsidized cost. The testing program should provide fast results and be available free to people who deal with the public (e.g., medical workers, police, store clerks, etc.) and people identified in contact tracing.
Start opening up to visitors again. All visitors to the islands should be tested. If testing prior to departure is not possible, test upon arrival with mandatory two-day quarantine and another test. The transient accommodation tax or federal funds should cover cost. Finally, we need to start opening up businesses in Hawaii. Issue guidelines and let the businesses/customers determine if it’s time/safe to open up.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
It’s ironic that one of the things to come out of the last Constitutional Convention back in 1978 was a balanced budget amendment. It didn’t take the Legislature much time to figure out ways around that. When the government has to borrow to balance the budget, it is not a balanced budget. Interest on debt alone is now about 10% of the budget. If there is one thing the government is good at it’s spending more than it brings in.
A good place to start would be across-the-board spending (budget) cuts for all state departments – say 5% per year. Let the department heads determine how to save that money. After all, they know their departments best, and that’s what they get paid to do.
Looking at it from a legislative perspective, several actions would help balance the budget. First, subject all major expenditures to a “fiscal stress test” to determine viability. Second, do away with “discretionary” projects that are often financed to support special interest groups. Third, reform the public pension and health programs and the automatic 2% increase per year. Fourth, reduce the barriers to labor mobility and business ownership. Fifth, eliminate barriers to contracting private services.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
It may sound simplistic, but in our society a diverse economy depends on the willingness of businesses to take a risk and start up. To encourage businesses, the Legislature often gives tax breaks or other incentives. This is akin to playing favorites. Instead, the Legislature should decrease the regulation, tax and fee burdens that it places on all businesses.
Hawaii recently ranked third from the bottom for business climate by Forbes. In CNBC’s ranking we were second from last. Guess who has the most influence on the business climate? The Legislature. If the overall business climate is not improved, economic diversity will remain a pipe dream.
For example, we import over 80% of our food, but Hawaii has one of the best climates in the world. Instead we could grow 80% of our food if agriculture (I’m talking the small mom-and-pops) wasn’t so heavily regulated, zoning easily adjusted and labor available. The legislative mindset must be changed.
Finally, there is no hope for a diverse economy in an island environment without access to raw materials and products. One of the biggest roadblocks to this is the Jones Act, which serves to limit the importation of goods. Push for revision.
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 state is making progress in addressing unfunded liabilities by establishing a pay-off schedule over the next 30 years. But this will necessitate a reduction in government spending, an increase in revenues and growing the economy overall. This will require constant monitoring, adjustment to future impacting factors, and buy-in from a variety of stakeholders.
Specifically, ongoing improvements to the pension system are reducing future costs by adjusting benefits for new employees, requiring them to work longer for benefits, contribute more (both the employing agency and the individual), and removing overtime from retirement calculations. In addition, cost saving changes to the Employer Union Health Benefits Trust Fund should alleviate some of the future burdens that public employers support.
I support reducing or even suspending temporarily automatic annual pension increases. It is more appropriate to link the increases to the cost of living rather than simply a flat rate increase. In this time of crisis, the ability to completely eliminate increases is an important tool for economic solvency. However benefits already accrued are rightfully protected constitutionally for present employees. Changes to the system must apply to future employees, and that is the way it should be.
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?
I can’t do anything to ensure public confidence in Hawaii’s top officials, because I am not them. Only they, individually, can take action to improve the public trust. It’s normal for people to disagree. It’s counterproductive to let those disagreements stand in the way of progress — resulting in a lack of public confidence. Establish a common goal, and work out differences to enable that first step. The actual path may be something no one initially envisions, but constructive action is the result.
As far as improving public confidence in me, as a legislator, it starts with “visibility” — a term often proclaimed but seldom embraced. Anyone who is interested should know what I am doing and why. It’s presently way too difficult for the average person to find out how their legislator votes on a bill, much less find out what they are thinking as that bill progresses. Information is key, but there just isn’t enough of it floating around in this “information age.”
Unfortunately, information is often perceived as a threat to power. As the old saying goes, “Ignorance is bliss” — especially among constituents. I’d like to change that, not only for me, but for the entire Legislature.
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?
Having had several encounters with police and in talking to people who have, it is my experience that the police in Hawaii are generally colorblind when dealing with the general population, and more importantly, when dealing with lawbreakers. Perhaps having no majority ethnic group, having a good cross-representation in the police force and having a good training program helps.
As far as improving police accountability, the department is moving in the right direction. Body cameras not only cause officers to think twice, they also support officers’ actions when challenged by the perps or general public. Misconduct records should be more visible, but complete and open viewing would be a mistake. Nothing is absolute. There may be instances when disclosure is not a good idea. Oversight is presently adequate.
I’d like to add that I disagree with Police Chief Ballard’s recent banning of choke holds. The martial arts move is taught as a defense of the last resort. Depending on the situation, complimentary force may be required. Removing a tool from an officer’s tool box simply indicates the chief does not trust their discretion. All tools should be available to the officers who generally do a great job protecting the public.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
A citizens initiative is a petition signed by a designated number of voters that either forces the Legislature to consider a policy change (“indirect”) or forces a public vote if not enacted by the Legislature (“direct”). The wording of the law usually limits it to one or more of the following: state laws, constitutional amendments and local statutes. This process is often called “direct democracy.”
Although the term “democracy” is often used to describe our form of government, we are actually a “republic.” The primary difference is that a true democracy is majority rule, and a republic gives power to people who may not agree with the majority. “Direct democracy” is really a misnomer, because it applies to voters whose views, even though a majority of the voters, may not actually represent the majority of the population.
Having said that, and although the Legislature is elected to look out for the concerns of the public they represent, there is a place for direct democracy. I support the indirect form of direct democracy. But one must realize that the Legislature is good at tabling things. (That’s why there should be term limits, and no career politicians — direct democracy at the polls.)
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?
Gov. Ige’s emergency proclamation covered more than just public records. In general this portion of his proclamation was to ensure quick and expedient action in response to the pandemic emergency by the Legislature and senior governmental officials, which is often delayed by the mandatory public interaction. However, in this age of electronic communication, I see no reason why proposed actions could not be made public and a short comment period made available to the public prior to implementation. Of course not all of the public is plugged in, but most of the interested public is.
However, it concerns me that some governmental committees, when considering things unrelated to the emergency, used the emergency proclamation to keep the public in the dark. This should never have happened, especially when the decisions had little to nothing to do with the emergency. Shame! Bottom line, in an emergency the public should still be informed. (Dang, there’s that dastardly concept “visibility” again.)
I would like to add that there is an issue with the government’s charging for hard copies of records. I realize it takes clerical effort, but if everything was available online, this wouldn’t really be an issue.
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?
Depending which scientific expert you listen to, the ocean could rise 1 or 2 feet in the next hundred years. Rainfall may increase or decrease in specific areas, along with temperatures. However, just because this possibility may be years away is no reason to do nothing. But honestly, there are bigger concerns on the immediate horizon.
Before you spit out your coffee in dismay, let me say what should be done now. The Legislature has already commissioned several studies and more are on the way. Although I am not a big fan of studies, which often cost too much and get filed away with no action taken, public areas that will be impacted by rising tides or changing climate should be identified and actions taken/planned. Coastal roads need to be protected or relocated. Ditto the airports and public facilities close to the coast. Predicted weather changes may also spur changes to public building codes and electrical distribution grids.
Note the use of the word “public.” There has been much talk about protecting private interests, especially along the coast. In general the only reason for the government to get involved in protecting private interests should be for the public’s good.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Education and the opportunity for our youth to make a living, which are closely related (so I’m counting it as one). Everything starts with education. If the foundation is not solid, it doesn’t matter what is built upon it. One day everything could come crumbling down. Not every high school student is destined for higher education.
The basics supporting alternate career paths must be offered. Schools must focus on outcomes, not simply processes. Good teachers need to receive appropriate compensation for one of the hardest, but most rewarding jobs out there. Principals need more control and the ability to focus on the things that their school specifically needs to succeed. Parents need more influence over which schools are best suited for their children, and the money should follow the student.
But preparing the young adult for future success is just the beginning. If opportunities for gainful employment are few and far between, young adults will leave the islands. This is presently happening and is predicted to increase in the future unless diverse employment opportunities are available locally. The Legislature is key to encouraging local entrepreneurs. The best thing they can do is get out of the way of success.
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.
This sounds like “The Graduate” line, when Dustin Hoffman was given advice on how to invest his time before ending up in the bottom of the pool: plastics. OK, that may still be a good recommendation, and unfortunately it has turned into a bad word; but how about something that is related: self sufficiency.”
Alright, alright, it is not an island-shattering new idea, but definitely something highlighted by the pandemic that we are presently doing little about. My district has it all – Hilo town, Hawaiian homesteads, geothermal power, a national park, and the farmers, ranchers and fishermen of Kau.
Hilo town, where are the businesses that depend on more than tourism? Hawaiian homesteads, why are so many Hawaiians dying on the waiting list? Geothermal power, why isn’t the Big Island supplying all alternative energy for the rest of the state? National park, why is our land under constant threat from invasive species and regulation? Farmers, ranchers and fishermen, why isn’t our educational system focused on graduating students with skills in diverse interests?
And why does the Legislature effectively stand in the way of self-sufficiency? We live on islands that can and should be completely self-sufficient if given the chance.