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 Amy Perruso, Democratic candidate for State House District 46, which includes Wahiawa, Whitmore Village and Launani Valley. The other Democratic candidate is Aaron Agsalda.
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 think that state leadership, while embattled by unprecedented public health and public infrastructure challenges, has done reasonably well in terms of instituting measures necessary to protect public health. The catastrophic economic consequences are, in my estimation, the result not of decision-making in this moment but the consequence of failure to adequately, proactively and wisely invest in our state’s technological infrastructure, our public health system, our public education system and food production and distribution systems.
The dire situation we face now with massive revenue shortfalls are a direct consequence of the unwillingness of previous generations of leaders to wean us away from our over-reliance on tourism – we have not just reproduced this dangerous dependence, but intensified it with our recent inability to check the emergence of mass tourism. We have yet to see how and if state leadership will rise to this occasion in ways that center and protect working class families.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
This is the most important time to remember that budgets are moral documents that express our shared values. If we value our local working families, then we need to take a look at the nearly $500 million in unnecessary GET exemptions that favor corporations, the millions stashed in special funds in various departments and even more importantly, the revenue we are failing to collect.
We should be taxing real estate investment trusts (REITS), imposing higher taxes on corporations and higher income taxes on the wealthiest, especially those who benefitted so much from the Trump tax cuts. It’s critical that we start having conversations around democratic and egalitarian approaches to taxation, because what we need to protect and improve is the ability of our working families to not just survive but also flourish. We cannot make the same mistake of making public workers bear the brunt of economic downturn that we have in the past, because that will make recovery nigh impossible.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
Just and sustainable diversification will require that we deal with our current destructive dependencies and social distortions with a critical and clear alternative vision. We need to invest in our strengths, which include our people and our aina.
We need to invest in educational approaches that connect our young people to this place and provide them with robust post-secondary educational opportunities here so that we can forestall our serious brain drain. In providing culturally appropriate and place-based education, we should move away from the overemphasis on standardized testing so that we can teach the arts, Hawaiian language and cultural practices, interdisciplinary and problem-based approaches to inquiry and social justice-oriented civic education practices that enable our young people to step into power and responsibility.
Aina here refers to that which sustains life, and to flourish, we will also need to invest in our conditions of life. With a year-round growing season and temperate climate, we should be moving rapidly away from food import dependence and away from industrial agriculture. We need to support the rapid emergence of small-scale, sustainable farming and provide them with social infrastructure necessary to process and distribute their goods. We also need to invest in strengthening “communities of care” by investing in public health and social support infrastructure, so that we can more adequately address the needs of the most vulnerable in ways that save us money and mend the fabric of our communities.
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 think the current approach is reasonable and allows us to pay for unfunded liabilities while also meeting the pension and health care obligations for public workers. I would not support reductions in benefits for public employees.
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 would focus on increased civic education and elevated standards for public discourse so as to improve public reasoning. Every elected and appointed leader can and should do more to provide not just transparency into decision-making processes, but also accountability. They need to make themselves available to the community for public questioning and critical conversations, as painful as that might be, so that people can make more informed determinations of their evaluations of the government official and top executives.
And we need, at every level, to find more and better ways to engage in community organizing, to begin our policymaking decisions with the community, rather than imposing a decision made by a small clique of people.
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?
This is a critical and deeply felt issue for the people of Hawaii, as evidenced in recent protests organized by young people. We are already engaged in a public discussion around reform of the criminal justice system, on the grounds that it is racist and classist, and it is critical that we also address policing. With the recent resignation of the two most vocal critics on the Honolulu Police Commission, we need to create a more robust system of oversight of the police, especially in Honolulu, by giving the commission more control over policy and administrative affairs.
I do support mandatory disclosure of misconduct records and adequate funding for already formed law enforcement oversight boards, and I also support defunding the militarization of the police that we saw emerging with the struggle over the mauna and which continues into the governor’s and the Honolulu mayor’s current budgets.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I do not favor a statewide citizen’s initiative, because I have seen, in other states, powerful conservative corporate forces use this tool to charterize and privatize public schools and repeal taxation structures to which the wealthy object.
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 situation seemed dire at the onset of the pandemic in Hawaii, and I can understand why the governor may have thought such an action was necessary. However, I do not think that the suspension of open government laws was ultimately necessary.
Moreover, conditions have changed and we need to make sure that enforcement of open government laws helps us to ensure that the public has access to open meetings and public records in a timely fashion.
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 are facing climate crisis. Over the next 30 to 70 years, sea level rise will expose roughly 6,500 structures and 19,800 people statewide to chronic flooding, while dramatic changes along with desalinization will upset the entire ocean ecosystem, including our reefs and all ocean life. The structural damage alone will cost Hawaii over $19 billion and pose serious public health risks.
Our response needs to come from strategies grounded in social justice and aloha aina – we need to make sure that our efforts to protect the islands do not come at the expense of workers’ prosperity. We should immediately create good-paying green jobs in our clean energy industry, with an insistence on gender equity, that pay at least $17 an hour, and strive to become 100 percent fueled by renewable energy by the year 2030.
Additionally, we must begin a managed retreat from our shorelines and enact greater protections against erosion for our coastlines. Instead of hardening our shorelines with seawalls and subsidizing the economic losses of wealthy property owners, we need to soften our structures and organize our communities so that we can be stronger and more resilient in the face of increasingly frequent and intense climate events.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The most pressing issue facing my community is the cynicism and sense of alienation of the people from those who hold power and govern in this state. There is a great deal of anger about the failure of those in power to listen to the community and to act with integrity and fidelity to shared values of aloha, fairness and respect. Much of that anger comes from failures to adequately engage community in decision-making processes and to work from the ground up.
During my first term in office, I have worked hard to change this situation. This work began with my initial campaign, actually, during which I canvassed the district three times and had countless conversations at the doors. Once elected, I held community meetings and town halls to develop our shared legislative agenda, provide feedback on the progress of that agenda, introduce my community to the House leadership, and to debrief, a cycle I repeated this session until COVID-19 hit. During the COVID-19 pandemic, I have taken that work virtual, hosting five virtual town halls on different issues of community concern, from houselessness and public health to military relations and public education.
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 would call, as have others, for a move toward a circular economy that aims to redefine economic success, focusing on positive society-wide benefits. We will need, to flourish as an island community, to gradually decouple our economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and begin to actually design waste and pollution out of our economic system, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.
This means more than ending our sick dependency on mass tourism — it means thinking about our economy in hyper-local terms. For example, that we will quickly move to support small, sustainable agriculture for local consumption, because we will no longer be willing to accept the multiple externalized costs (pollution/pesticides, food insecurity, low industrial agricultural wages) imposed by industrial agricultural production for export that comes with almost complete dependency on food imports to feed ourselves.