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 Marilyn Lee, Democratic candidate for state House District 36, which includes Mililani Mauka and Mililani. The other Democratic candidate is Trish La Chica.
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?
Hawaii has been seriously affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, with the biggest impacts being to the economy, tourism and especially to our public schools where students have actually lost one quarter of the school year, despite online supplements and community efforts. None can argue that the state has not done well in containing the virus, as we are among the states lowest in both reported cases and deaths. Here in Mililani, folks have been relatively compliant to stay-at-home, social distancing and hygiene recommendations.
However, government has fallen behind on testing, contact tracing and communications. I would have started testing and contact tracing much earlier, and been faster to respond to the financial concerns of folks who have been laid off and/or lost their jobs. The stay-at-home orders were necessary and directed by best practices of the CDC, and our state virologists and epidemiologists.
We urgently need to get students back to school, not just for classroom instruction, but also for all the other services public schools provide. However, the return to school needs to be safe. As an experienced registered nurse, I understand the complexities of achieving safety while resuming economic activity, but the question remains: Are we willing to take the risks?
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
As a legislator, I served during the 2008 downturn as vice-chair of the House Finance Committee. During this difficult time, I learned a lot about managing the budget during a crisis. However, this crisis is much worse. Folks are suffering a lot more. Balancing the budget will be difficult, and there may have to be painful cuts in all areas.
However, we should not cut:
• The pay of teachers;
• Other educational costs, except for those that the schools themselves may suggest;
• Funds reserved for family planning (for many women, their only source of health care);
• Funds for important health care needs. Patients should not fear visiting their doctors or the emergency room when needed;
• Funds for public safety
Upgrading the computer system used to process unemployment claims should also be a priority.
Of course, all these areas need to be re-evaluated and adjustments made as solutions are found and the fiscal situation changes. There are many special funds that could be used to supplement costs. Next, we need to use the federal funds that have come down for the purpose they were given and not play games by hiding monies from the executive branch.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
We need to diversify and create thousands of new jobs, thereby generating sustainable tax revenue.
Some of the suggestions for legislative action could be:
• Infrastructure improvements, including the hardening of commercial and residential buildings to allow people to shelter at home during storms;
• New jobs in public health such as contact tracers. Retraining tourism workers to do some of these jobs is surely possible;
• Jobs for those who teach infection control and personal protective equipment will be needed;
• New industries manufacturing ventilators (as has been done on Maui), gowns, gloves, face masks, and hand sanitizers;
• Additional training for health care personnel in pandemic management;
• Helping the agricultural sector to thrive by using fallow lands and planting more trees;
• Supporting the University of Hawaii’s efforts in aerospace development.
We must be willing to try new things and not fall back on the past. A suggestion was made in an opinion piece in the local newspaper by Debbie Misajon to convert some hotel rooms to vacation rentals, thereby opening up housing in the non-resort areas of the islands that have been plagued by hordes of tourists and possibly create new jobs for hotel workers.
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?
We need to continue to try to comply with the plan to pay for the unfunded liabilities. Even if we fall behind we should keep trying to meet each deadline. We must never again borrow from the pension fund. This fund is based on promises made which should not be broken.
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 stress of the pandemic and the recent deaths of American citizens has taken its toll. Amazingly, the community has come forward in the generous Hawaiian way to provide food and comfort to many of those who need it. Folks, especially the young, have come forward to speak for the civil rights of black citizens and other minorities.
Yet it is disturbing to see the fighting and grandstanding of some of our elected officials. I believe this has gotten worse since during the last election campaign. Legislators publicly took sides against the sitting governor and endorsed another candidate before the primary. As a long-time Democrat, I found this confusing and a departure from tradition.
I know our leaders are under a lot of stress and that they are in the spotlight, but we need to work together as much as possible to find solutions. Attacking each other is fruitless. There is nothing wrong with strong opinions but they must be expressed in a respectful way. It is up to the leaders of each caucus to bring back a sense of propriety to the legislative process.
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?
House Speaker Saiki has announced they will be bringing back House Bill 285 HD1SD2, Relating to Public Safety and concerned with Disciplinary Action, Public Records and Disclosure of Police Officers Records. It will be interesting to see how this evolves. Chief Ballard has temporarily stopped the practice of vascular neck holds, similar but not the same as what was done to George Floyd. We should ban choke holds.
As a neighborhood board member, I am used to appearances of our friendly and responsive officers who answer questions and explain issues. I have also had to call police for various community concerns. It is important we look at all sides of this and debate carefully. I do support public disclosure of relevant disciplinary action. As far as defunding, it seems we have only a few officers on duty at a time to take care of our public safety needs, and we probably need to increase the funds they have to hire and train new people. Actually education and training is a constant challenge for the police and one we must help solve.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I do not support a statewide initiative process. One can only look at the money and effort to pass innumerable initiatives in California to know it would not be a good thing for Hawaii. I am OK with land use initiatives.
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?
The suspension should be removed and I disagree with the action taken by the governor.
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?
Climate change is one of my most important priorities. I am an original member of the Mililani Town Disaster Preparation Team, a group educating the community about how we as citizens can prepare for the increasingly severe storms that are predicted.
We must work to prevent any more building close to the ocean, and to improve the health of the reefs and shoreline. Increased use of renewables and decreasing our carbon footprint will help, but in some places we are so far gone, it will be hard to recover. Our wonderful Hawaii water must be protected from the harmful effects of salinization and insecticide and saltwater intrusion. We can do something about invasive species and here is one area where meaningful jobs can be created to replace those lost. Planting of trees must be continuous, and our forests and parks and ocean kept free of invasive species. We should complete transit to get more cars off the road.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Right now the most pressing need in the district is for students, teachers and staff to get safely back to school, so that moms and dads can return to work and a sense of normalcy is restored. I would be happy to be a volunteer monitor in the schools while a safe routine is established, as well as to work with the schools on infection control measures.
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.
We need to get to work right now to prepare for the next pandemic. Work on vaccines can be done by the medical school in collaboration with the university. Research on the trends and a careful evaluation of what has been done in response to COVID-19 will be invaluable in this preparation. We have the brains to do it and if we have not yet started, we should start now. This initiative could also work in tandem with some of my suggestions on how to diversify the economy.