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 Trish La Chica, Democratic candidate for state House District 36, which includes Mililani Mauka and Mililani. The other Democratic candidate is Marilyn Lee.
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’s experiences in crisis management from the major natural disasters in the last two years (Kilauea eruption and Kauai flooding) should have prepared our governor well to act decisively, communicate effectively with the public and work cooperatively with the Legislature during the crisis. Unfortunately, the response was still slow and Hawaii’s stay-at-home order was only issued 17 days after the state’s first COVID-19 case.
We need good communication to allay fears and confusion. We should not expect the public to tune in to daily press conferences and legislative hearings just to get information. Leaders such as Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern have been widely praised for their reassuring leadership, helping the public understand that they have to be part of the solution despite not knowing when the crisis will end.
In addition to having effective public communication, I would have expanded testing early by waiving the requirement that a primary care provider’s orders are necessary to receive any kind of COVID-19 test so that individuals without health insurance or access to a PCP can get tested.
Finally, I believe that public health and medical experts should be at the table, jointly leading the statewide response in accelerating emergency planning, coordinating interagency and cross-sector relationships, prioritizing public safety, and mobilizing the distribution of resources, such as personal protective equipment, across all islands.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
Hawaii’s working families already experienced the painful impact from the 2008 recession. Having $2.3 billion less to spend while balancing the budget is an enormous responsibility but the added stress of telling people that they could be laid off or have their hours cut or lose their health insurance is not how to repay those who continue to serve our communities, including our most vulnerable. Instead of cutting, our state government needs to find money to help keep our workers employed and keep critical programs going.
Hawaii is estimated to receive more than $3 billion of aid from the proposed $3 trillion federal HEROES Act and the Republican-controlled Senate needs to stop delaying the vote to help state and local government with balancing their budgets.
If the Senate continues to stall, the next way forward is to take advantage of Hawaii’s excellent credit rating and borrow from the new Federal Reserve lending facility that was opened up for states. The Legislature authorized the governor to borrow up to $2.1 billion, payable in three years. In addition, the Hawaii Budget and Policy Center released a guide on proposed sources of new revenue that would not hurt Hawaii’s working families, but instead captures tax breaks enjoyed by the top 1 percent of earners and top corporations.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
I absolutely believe that the pandemic has provided Hawaii with the opportunity to rethink how we can move away from our reliance on tourism. I strongly support expanding training and education to shift our workforce into green jobs, local food production, technology and innovation, health care, clean energy and natural resource management. All of this also helps Hawaii to become more resilient in the face of future disasters.
Right now, my priority if elected, is to rebuild an economy that protects our workers by providing them with adequate workplace safety guidance and personal protective equipment, supporting public health needs so that workers feel safe, sustaining our working families by passing paid sick leave and providing relief for housing, child care and utilities, and to saving our local businesses and farmers by providing them with aid and forgivable loans.
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?
Pension and health plan benefits must be protected. Hawaii should continue to make contributions and pay off as much of the unfunded liabilities as possible because it reduces future costs for taxpayers. Funding the pension at a lower level, instead of the $1.1 billion going into the fund in 2020, could allow the state to continue funding other critical programs.
There’s just no silver bullet to fully fund the state’s $26 billion unfunded liability and this will take decades to fix. Additional payments will require significantly more revenue than what is expected to come from our current tax structure. In the immediate term, we must continue to honor existing benefits for retired public workers while considering new sources of revenue identified in the 2017 Tax Review Commission report such as taxing e-cigarettes or sugary beverages, which in turn, help to decrease long-term health-care costs paid by the state.
Increasing taxes for the top 1 percent or those who make more than $500,000 annually, or taxing real estate invement trusts (REITs) which earn about $1 billion in profits that are not taxed here in Hawaii, can also help to fund our existing liabilities.
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?
First, our state leaders need to improve how they are communicating with the public. This includes acknowledging very clearly what the situation is, even when painful, and what necessary steps are being done to mitigate the crisis. To paint a rosy picture when there is consistent anxiety and confusion further erodes public trust.
Second, information needs to be easy to find. The counties did a much better job in translating the various emergency orders for the public to understand and posting them online and on social media. Also, key information and data should be proactively published online to assist researchers, providers, social service agencies and other nonprofits in making decisions to respond to COVID-19.
Finally, we need to empower others, not just those in top offices, to make decisions. I believe that input from community and working families should be prioritized in the plans to reopen Hawaii’s economy. Also, there are so many community organizations and local talent (many of whom I’ve worked with) who are capable of assisting government navigate all the relationships necessary to work on a path to safe recovery. This should have been utilized rather than spending millions of dollars on a mainland consulting group to do this work.
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?
The recent nationwide protests and calls to end racism have affected me profoundly. I cannot help but reflect on my own experiences as a Filipino immigrant and the challenges I have had to overcome to prove myself and build a better life for my family. Systemic racism disproportionately affects Native Hawaiians, low-income populations, and recent immigrants such as Filipino and Micronesian communities. I believe that society has tolerated injustice and inequity as part of the status quo. These are important issues not just for us but for our kids and grandkids. Not enough Native Hawaiians or Filipinos are in positions of power and we need to change that.
I believe in police reform and accountability. I also believe that we need to address the root causes of poverty, homelessness and poor health outcomes. It is only when we prioritize our budget decisions to invest in the environments in which we live, work, learn, play and age, that we will see better conditions in wages, education, housing, safety and health outcomes among our marginalized communities. This is what defunding the police and investing in community means.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
At this point I do not think that Hawaii has the resources or capacity to enact a fully effective citizens initiative process. Although I fully support the idea of giving voters the opportunity to pass measures that may not receive legislative action or funding, I worry about using this as a tool to advance special interests.
For example, although voters ultimately upheld a ban on selling flavored tobacco products including vaping liquids in San Francisco in June 2018, Big Tobacco still spent a whopping $12 million dollars to block the initiative.
If this happens in Hawaii, how can we ensure that an initiative is truly representative of the people’s interests? How do we prevent signature fraud and ensure that voters have the appropriate information to fully understand the issue? If special interests pour millions of dollars to persuade voters, how do we protect minority rights?
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 with the governor’s action to suspend open government laws. Suspending transparency and access to information should not come at such a critical time when we expect our government to be responsive and accountable to the very people they are seeking to protect.
I believe it was counterproductive to have meetings that were inaccessible to the public. It is the public’s right to know about the activities and decisions being made, and who is making such decisions, especially if the public is expected to comply with the various emergency orders.
Also, there should be opportunities to provide public comment, particularly on plans to reopen Hawaii’s economy. It is important for the public to know that their input is valid and that government is taking proactive steps to ensure the public have access to information that is necessary to inform them of how to respond to the outbreak.
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?
Fighting the climate crisis is one of my priorities. Sea level rise is a result of climate change that is warming the planet and our oceans. Add this to the existing threats to our reefs (acidification, tourist impact and overfishing) and our reefs are unable to grow and keep up.
Hawaii should seek cesspools and injection wells abatement measures such as connecting to local wastewater systems or to eliminate the problem of wastewater contamination that is damaging our reefs. Hawaii will also benefit from legislation to implement managed retreat by restricting development away from the shoreline. And we need to prioritize moving public infrastructure in areas susceptible to sea level rise.
Finally, we need to invest in our island becoming more resilient — protecting our freshwater supply, energy sustainability and local food production. We also need continued protection for workers on the frontlines — health care, firefighters, sanitation. All these workers fight the impacts of climate change every day and I would help to advocate for appropriate staffing levels for these workers as well as adequate equipment and training to deal with new hazards.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Cost of living and quality of life is the most pressing issue facing our district. Year after year, my neighbors are leaving Mililani for a more affordable life on the mainland. Increased homelessness, crime and pedestrian accidents are a growing problem that leave residents feeling vulnerable and unprotected.
As an elected representative, I will continue to protect the reasons that make Mililani a better place to live and raise our families. I will help our working families thrive by prioritizing policies that put their health and safety first and to work toward achieving universal health care and child care, sustainable local food production, and clean energy communities to reduce the daily living expenses that take the most out of our paychecks. I am going to prioritize homeownership for our residents, protect renters and accelerate services for the unhoused.
Finally, I would like to become the type of leader who will work very hard to ensure that the people I serve should never, ever have to feel powerless.
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.
Hawaii’s future belongs to our children and I want our youth to help shape the policies that will affect their generation.
If elected, I would dedicate several bills to Hawaii’s youth. The pandemic has already added to the serious adversities our youth face — access to mental health services, food insecurity, lack of competitive job opportunities. Just as the labor movement before us, youth activists are taking to the streets to demand bolder action to address racial injustice and protect our planet.
Power doesn’t come to those waiting to be invited to the conversation. To be a leader my kids will be proud of, I must do everything I can to provide our youth with the power to interrupt and claim their right to be included.
To invite young people into state government and to help our economic recovery, I will push to involve them in modernizing outdated IT systems across state government. The unemployment insurance system’s failures are just the “tip of the iceberg.” Similar problems are rampant throughout the departments. We need to do better for our people, and I am committed to making sure that state government serves the people in the most efficient and cost-effective manner.