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 Tracy Arakaki, Democratic candidate for state House District 33, which includes Aiea. The other Democratic candidate is Sam Kong.
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?
Safety of our citizens should continue to be the most important priority in government right now. I support the stay-at-home orders and the closing of the tourism industry, despite the enormous hardships placed on people. I have relatives and friends that are currently impacted, struggling to stay financially afloat due to their jobs being related to our visitor industry.
There is no doubt that COVID-19 has crippled our economy. I can only imagine how difficult it was to adjust to a completely unknown situation, so erring on the side of safety would have been my top priority. I would have pushed for more aggressive testing among the community, being that only a small percentage of folks here have been tested.
I would have also not waited more than a month for the Department of Labor and the Unemployment Insurance division to react. That was a huge failure that directly affected thousands of hard-working Hawaii people displaced by COVID-19. We could have deployed state employees to assist DLIR quickly, and perhaps even moved to a system (even if it was paper) to ensure the timely processing of UI claims. Many people could not simply access the DLIR site and even until today people are still unable to access their benefits.
In a long-term approach, I would also put the diversification of Hawaii’s local economy at the forefront of the Legislature’s attention. The lack of a concise plan to open up our economy once again and how it will be done should have been addressed much sooner. In a future catastrophe of such magnitude, plans on how we adjust and shift so that such a huge section of the economy would not be affected needs to be looked into now and not wait till another crisis occurs.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
There’s always ways to reduce waste and duplicative services in government and I think that’s where we should start. The past months have shown the ineffectiveness of the current technology of some of our government agencies. We can also look at what kinds of services and licensing can be done online, as opposed to in person.
The current economic situation has forced our entire state to think about how we can better live within our means, and this should be applied to how we deliver services and goods to the public. We must absolutely protect the social net programs for seniors and children, to ensure that they are not falling through the cracks.
We are living in a new reality, and tough decisions will have to be made. I am also open to looking at readjusting the tax code, and streamline tax relief where possible.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
If elected, I hope to work with the House and Senate leadership and the leaders of DEBDT to foster a serious post COVID-19 discussion on the future of Hawaii’s economy. Diversifying the economy has always been a popular campaign policy point on a wish list, but now more than ever it is imperative that we start investing and planting the seeds for the diversification of jobs, training and education, and industries, so that our state is not completely reliant on the visitor industry in continuity.
One industry that has been slowly and quietly gaining momentum is the world aerospace industry, with companies like SpaceX and others looking for launch sites and operations stations. We could use opportunities like that to strengthen and bolster our STEM programs within our schools, and become a first-tier state for the training of aeropspace, mechanical and propulsion experts.
That’s just an example — there are lots of opportunities out there. It’s the Legislature’s role to help guide and foster a conducive environment to nurture and grow these kinds of non-tourism-related industries, and I would like to be a part of those discussions.
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 don’t support reductions in benefits to address Hawaii’s unfunded liabilities. A macroeconomic approach is needed, and I applaud the efforts of Sen. Dela Cruz and Rep. Luke in starting the conversations to develop a long-term plan.
The two biggest opportunities to adjust the funding issues are to to continue paying out the liabilities while it’s at a lower level, and also growing the economy by streamlining administrative and legal barriers to businesses in Hawaii. The state procurement code and the building permit/code process for the counties can all be looked at it and streamlined where possible, to foster a business friendly environment. Any tax adjustments must be made fairly and equal across the board.
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?
The communication between these particular two branches of government definitely needs improvement. I would work with the House leadership to forge better working relationships with the corresponding agencies, and instill an imperative among all of these decision makers that the public safety is of unparalleled importance and we should be working together to get through this pandemic.
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?
In the beginning of June two of the Honolulu police commissioners resigned, citing the inability of the institution to make meaningful change within the department. I think their intentions and actions proved that reform is desperately needed.
I would be in favor of revisiting the state laws that govern police powers and start from there to find ways to strengthen oversight over the departments and other related activities of the government relating to enforcement. I also support mandatory disclosure of misconduct records, especially amid recent stories of domestic violence and other issues. We must all hold each other, and ourselves, to a higher professional standard when conducting the people’s business.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Yes. It puts the right to address constitutional amendments directly into the hands of the people.
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?
During this pandemic virtual public meetings have been a huge challenge. The public has an undeniable right to attend and understand meetings of the government. I would have just streamed the meetings on a government website open to the public.
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?
Protecting the environment is a huge priority for me. We live on an island and our resources are finite. We are already beginning to see the effects of climate change and the risk of rising water levels. I support the State of Hawaii’s sustainability plans, and as a legislator would continue to work on ways to increase the state’s levels of photovoltaic and other renewable energy sources.
We could also look at expanding our recycling capabilities and our H plant. Transportation and infrastructure is also largely tied into the carbon footprint we leave behind. I support Complete Streets and smart development policies that support sustainability.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Public safety, housing and public infrastructure have been the topics of many of my conversations with my neighbors and potential constituents. As a member of the Aiea Neighborhood Board for 21 years I also frequently see these types of issues come up.
Homelessness is a major concern and it has our community concerned. Unlike my opponent, who has said on numerous occasions that he is working to bring homeless communities directly into Aiea, I would make sure that type of situation never happens in Aiea.
Also the rising cost of living, particularly the cost to buy a house as well as the cost of rent, has continued to go up. It’s not just local kids leaving the islands after graduating — lots of our working families are drawn to places like Nevada or Washington where they could make their precious dollars last longer. That’s what we should be working on — strengthening the economy and the business climate in Hawaii to provide good-paying jobs for our residents.
I would also work with our City Council to make stronger laws to make sure more monster homes are not built in Aiea. Many of our roads and neighborhoods have fallen into such disrepair, and oftentimes government feels like they are fixing as they go. We need a comprehensive vision for our district, to improve our roads, schools, jobs, and housing — issues that resound similarly across the state.
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.
As a legislator I would make a huge investment into public tele-health. Some health-care providers already do this, but imagine if we could get the entire army of public health officers of the State of Hawaii, we would be able to check in on kupuna who are already immobile, or provide a wide range of non-emergency services to the general public.
With the right tools and technology we could have adapted a high-tech public health approach to living in a post-COVID-19 world .