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 Shannon Matson, Democratic candidate for state House District 3, which includes Hilo, Keaau, Kurtistown and Volcano. The other Democratic candidates are Frederick Fogel 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?
I don’t find it productive to look back and second-guess the choices made by state leaders in response to the rapid spread of COVID-19. I believe that while much could have been done differently (in regards to timing of lock-down, communication, restrictions issued, testing, etc.), it is more important to acknowledge that ultimately the stay-at-home orders were effective because the people of Hawaii acted responsibly and followed them, even at great cost to themselves.
Any thoughts I have about what to do differently are focused on what lies ahead. I want to see the people of Hawaii’s sacrifices rewarded by creating a resilient economy based on a thriving ecosystem, one that can withstand disruptions like those we just experienced. When we have Eric Gill, the secretary-treasurer of Local 5, a union representing hotel workers, declaring that Hawaii should not return to pre-pandemic visitor arrival levels, we know that things are going to be done differently moving forward.
I am aligned with Local 5 and numerous other groups that are focused on looking forward for ways to create a diversified economy that benefits Hawaii’s people first and foremost. I have and always will be an advocate for community health and safety first, and firmly believe that as we continue to open back up to worldwide visitors that all travelers need to be screened and/or tested before being allowed to freely travel in our islands.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
Providing public services and a social safety net is a primary function of government so I would not look to these programs for major cuts. To the extent that such services can be provided more efficiently, I am in favor of pursuing opportunities to save taxpayer money by doing so, but, overall I would protect allocations for social services. It has been shown time and again that defunding programs aimed at helping those of our most vulnerable only intensifies their needs and results in higher costs in the long term.
As consensus in favor of an economy less reliant on tourism builds, I would look to reduce the amount Hawaii spends on promoting the tourism industry and put some of that money toward protecting our environment, which is truly our most valuable natural resource. I am in favor of a green tax on visitors to be dedicated to protecting and preserving the health of our environment for local residents and future generations.
As a prior manager and small business owner I would be looking for redundancy and inefficiency in our budget and examining innovative ways we could reduce spending and increase our local economy in a sustainable and diversified way.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
As we are currently still importing over 85% of our food, but we have a year-round growing season, I would like to see our top priority in our economy diversification be to improve our support for local, small-scale, sustainable agriculture. I would be supporting farm-to-table programs at the DOE level and through other state programs, and be working toward creating opportunities for students to have an active participation in learning about and supporting farming practices in school; growing their own food, harvesting their own food, preparing their own food, and eating their own food.
If we are able to create interactive and fun programs in which our keiki learn the importance of being food-self-sufficient and experience the joy in feeding themselves from food they grow, we will help to create the next generation of family farmers. This is crucial to support our goals of resiliency and improving the local economy. I would also be supporting the growth of green technology jobs and alternative energy production infrastructure as top priorities.
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?
I am not in favor of reducing benefits or pensions for public employees, regardless of budget shortfalls. I understand that our current unfunded liabilities may be approaching $14 billion and even with employer contribution rates being adjusted and rising incrementally that our liabilities will continue to be unfunded fully for over 25 years.
In light of all of this I think we need to think outside the box and look at other options for funding. I am interested in exploring options for additional taxation on our wealthiest 1% as we simultaneously work to end regressive taxation practices that adversely affect the lowest income wage earners in my district.
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 cannot earn public confidence for anyone other than myself and I know the only way to do this is to be forthcoming and transparent in everything I do. I’m running to be a representative because I believe that if you want to see real change you must be willing to do the work yourself.
I truly believe that the duty of an elected official is to be a representative for the people and will therefore not be taking any corporate donations. I believe we need to work to get fully publicly funded elections and establish term limits to help end career politician dominance at the state level and elect officials who are truly representing the communities in which they serve.
Another thing over which I have control is my own working relationship with Gov. Ige and his top executives. I do not intend to enter into these relationships with prejudice. I will treat everyone who shares my responsibility as a public servant to behave ethically and dutifully as if they share my own level of commitment to these values.
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?
There is a serious lack of trust between the public and police all over the country and here in Hawaii. We are at a moment of change right now, and some reforms are long overdue. I strongly believe we need to change what we are asking of our police force.
If we were to diversify the ways in which we spend our police budget, we could spread some of the responsibility throughout other agencies in our community who would be better equipped to de-escalate high stress situations, and get families connected to the services and help they may need; such as mental health care, anger management counseling, addiction treatment programs, or resources to financial aid.
An undue emphasis on the use of force in policing and the unnecessary militarization of police response units are things I am firmly against and will work to end. Police should have to go through far more hours of bias and cultural sensitivity training, de-escalation training, as well as receiving more support on the job, such as counseling or help with PTSD. This is one of the most stressful jobs we ask our citizens to take on, and we should do everything we can to put them in situations where they will have positive outcomes.
I do support the disclosure of misconduct records as well as more transparency and accountability from independent oversight boards, but I believe we have just as much, if not more, to gain from funding public safety programs that do not rely on the use of force.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I support any process that empowers Hawaii voters to hold elected officials more accountable and a statewide citizens initiative process does do that. If momentum for the adoption of such a process builds, I would work with others to find ways to make it less burdensome and costly.
I am certain there are ways to use technology, including the Internet, to gather signatures that do not require such a heavy burden on the grassroots organizations that typically rely on such initiatives to drive reform.
I would also like to investigate what safeguards can be put into place through these types of processes to keep private interest money from co-opting these initiatives so that they can truly be a representation of the will of the people and not for for-profit entities.
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 will always be in favor of transparency and openness in government. Our officials are elected to protect and serve our community interests and to truly build trust. These proceedings need to be as open and accessible as possible. I would like to see more electronic versions available of public records so that they can easily and quickly be obtained by those who seek them out.
Did you know that for a candidate running for office on the Big Island there is no option to purchase an electronic copy of the voter file? They have to request access to it by written form (not electronic) and then, if granted access by the County Clerk’s Office, they are then charged $100 and given the data on a CD. This time-consuming, expensive, and restrictive process can create unnecessary barriers for someone running for public office. The CD is not updated with newly registered voters after it is given to the candidate. What if a candidate doesn’t have a CD drive on their computer?
This is a small issue, but highlights the larger problem of how badly we need a technology overhaul. Anyone trying to access the state’s Unemployment Insurance system over the last few months knows exactly what I am talking about. We need to update these systems so they are working for the people who need them most.
We also deserve to have equal representation on all islands. Currently as non-Oahu residents our ability to participate in the state decision-making process is time-consuming and cost-prohibitive. Most of us cannot afford to take the time and money to travel off-island to testify on issues important to us. We need to be able to submit virtual testimony to make true participation in our democracy accessible for all, regardless of health, ability, wealth, etc.
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?
We need to be taking direct and decisive action to prepare for the coming effects of climate change, many of which are already beginning to be felt here. This is absolutely a priority for me.
Because this is a far-reaching, multi-layered issue, I believe we need to approach it in many different ways. Diversifying our economy is one (including small-scale agriculture as discussed above), providing incentives and support for clean/green technology and alternative energy is another, really reducing our waste stream is another, reducing our reliance on imported food and fuel is crucial, and creating a plan for addressing the coming need for reliable access to clean, affordable water in our district that currently has limited access to clean water is of the utmost importance.
I want to help create a government that is proactive, not just reactive — we need to have clear foresight into what that means. We can work toward creating systems in which we reduce and eliminate single-use plastics and instead increase our composting facilities and reclaim our waste into wealth.
We can work toward making sure every household has access to affordable, clean drinking water, rather than treating the over 50,000 households who currently rely on hauling water or using some sort of catchment system as second-class citizens. We need to be thinking and planning for upcoming crises in regards to water access and be ready to address them with compassionate and sustainable solutions before it becomes an even more devastating issue than our COVID deaths and shut-downs.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
District 3 is home to numerous unimproved subdivisions which, because they were developed without basic infrastructure, are among the most affordable in Hawaii. Many of the people living in these subdivisions drive long distances on unpaved roads to get to work and school; many of them lack access to utility power; many of them do not have reliable internet; many of them fill water jugs at the end of a long day’s work, so they have safe water to drink when they get home.
Although these subdivisions were created decades ago, their residents have never had their needs represented at the state Legislature. Instead, the needs of more densely populated areas with high voter turnout, where residents have reliable mail delivery, water, electricity and paved roads, have always come first.
Lack of access to clean water is unacceptable; it puts a huge burden on the district’s families and is a potential public health safety concern. While this longstanding problem won’t be solved in a single session, its eventual solution depends on a professional assessment of both need and solutions; securing funding for this in-depth analysis is a priority for me.
I will support infrastructure development in District 3 as a great way to provide jobs post-pandemic while meeting the needs of some of Hawaii’s most under-represented working families.
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 believe that because of our uniqueness, Hawaii could truly be an example of what independence and self-sustainability looks like — something the rest of the world could aspire to. Our physical isolation, climate, culture, and natural resources, etc. could all be truly showcased as we created a model of a self-reliant, environmentally thriving, compassionate community.
Our islands and people have already proven their resiliency and ability to adapt, after surviving tsunamis, hurricanes, volcanic eruptions, global pandemics.
I see this idea already becoming a reality in so many places on a small scale around my district — places like the Hilo Coffee Mill in Mountain View growing food, providing community market space, generating solar power, etc., little eco-villages all over our island where people are rising up and taking care of one another by creating food co-ops, child-care sharing, non-monetary barter systems, etc.
The state Legislature could be setting the path forward by applying these practices on a larger scale, taking bold action to incentivise PV systems and divesting away from fossil fuel money. Creating support and education around farming to feed our people first, and truly encouraging “buy local” programs that make sure we have enough food on island to withstand whatever disasters may be coming next before thinking about exporting items for sale to off-island markets.
We could reduce our waste, carbon emissions, and improve our quality of life all by choosing to really support sustainable living practices and re-create a new Hawaii that is once again not reliant on outside food or fuel to truly thrive.