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 Jeanne Kapela, Democratic candidate for State House District 5, which includes Naalehu, Ocean View, Captain Cook, Kealakekua and Kailua-Kona. The other Democratic candidate is Colehour Bondera.
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?
This question is personal to me because I am a coronavirus survivor. No, I don’t think that state leaders have handled the response effectively. At times, communication from the governor’s office has been confusing and in conflict with directives from county mayors. Additionally, I believe that banking $1.6 billion into the state’s rainy day fund was a mistake, given that Hawai’i’s people need immediate assistance.
If I was in charge of our state’s pandemic response, there are a number of things that I would have done differently. To begin, I would have ensured a more coordinated communication system, so that the information received by the public was clear and actionable. Additionally, I would have suspended rent and mortgage payments until the economic crisis had passed.
Moreover, I would have immediately devoted all available resources to the Department of Labor to handle incoming unemployment claims, enabling people who lost their jobs to receive benefits in a timely manner. Finally, I would’ve quickly distributed CARES Act funding to public health and community response initiatives, including food security, small business assistance and financial aid for immigrants who were unable to obtain federal stimulus funding.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
Cutting pay and essential services should not be on the table. Instead, we should maximize every state and federal dollar available, including by borrowing up to $2.1 billion from the Federal Reserve’s Municipal Liquidity Facility to plug financial shortfalls.
Additionally, we should look at what our state did during the Great Recession to close budget shortfalls, including temporarily repealing general excise tax exemptions to generate over $300 million per year. We should also implement sensible revenue generation policies to boost state finances, such as taxing real estate investment trusts, increasing high-earner individual and corporate income taxes, legalizing and taxing recreational cannabis, and instituting rate recapture for our state’s wealthiest residents.
Finally, we should stop funding the Hawaii Tourism Authority, which serves only to market Hawaii as a brand at a time when we need to diversify our economy away from tourism. Defunding HTA would free up $80 million for human services, educational, environmental and conservation initiatives. We should also abolish the accountability-plagued Agribusiness Development Corporation and significantly reduce standardized testing in our schools, which would save over $100 million per year.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
First, we need to invest in sustainable agriculture, so that we can decrease our reliance on food exports and increase local food sovereignty. That way, we can cut our dependence on costly exports, reduce carbon emissions from the shipping industry, and ensure that working families receive healthy meals, even when emergencies occur.
Second, we need to invest in Hawaii’s clean energy industry. Given our geographic advantages, we should be the envy of the world in terms of renewable energy research and production, so we can become 100 percent clean energy reliant within this decade.
Third, we’ve seen an outpouring of community activism in response to COVID-19, from food distribution to community health programs to services for victims of sexual and domestic violence. We need to invest in innovation that sustains the care-based economy we’ve created.
Fourth and finally, if we’re going to have tourism as part of our economic portfolio, we should have tourism on our terms. That means that we need to limit tourism to each island’s carrying capacity and establish policies like green fees that ensure our visitor industry helps to sustain our environment, rather than destroy it.
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 firmly oppose reducing pension benefits for public employees. Similarly, I oppose taxing pensions. Hawaii is a historically labor-friendly state. Our first labor organizers worked on the plantations, where they fought against exploitation and wage discrimination. That’s a heritage we must always respect and that I promise to defend.
To decrease our unfunded liabilities, we should create new sources of revenue. We can increase taxes for corporations and Hawaii’s wealthiest residents, raise conveyance tax rates, levy a tax on real estate investment trusts, implement a sugar tax, increase the transient accommodations tax that is primarily paid by tourists, and much more.
In 2017, PFM Consulting provided a report to the Tax Review Commission that outlined dozens of potential revenue generating proposals, evaluating the pros and cons of each. We need to revisit that report and implement many of its findings to guarantee that our state can meet its financial obligations, recover quickly, and expand public services.
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 believe that the best way to restore and maintain confidence in government officials at all levels is to maximize transparency in government processes. Too often, decisions are made behind closed doors, with little input from the public. That needs to change. We need to ensure that the actions of elected leaders are visible to the communities we represent. That way, members of the public can be confident that lawmakers are working for the only interest that matters: the people’s interest.
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?
Police reform is a major issue for Hawaii. As a young Native Hawaiian woman, this issue deeply affects me because Hawaiians are disproportionately arrested and incarcerated in our state and face harsher penalties than their non-Hawaiian neighbors.
I wholeheartedly support implementing mandatory disclosure of police misconduct records and fully funding law enforcement oversight boards to ensure that police are held accountable for their actions. I also believe that we need to ban police chokeholds in our state, which undermine public safety.
Furthermore, as a victim service provider for survivors of sex trafficking, I believe we should prohibit police from engaging in sexual conduct during prostitution investigations. Many of the victims I’ve assisted have been forced to engage in sex acts with law enforcement officers while they were being sexually exploited, worsening their trauma. It should be outlawed.
Finally, we need to decrease funding for police militarization and, instead, reallocate those funds to programs that advance communal wellness, like public education, social services, and community health centers. When vulnerable communities receive adequate resources, crime rates decline and the police become far less necessary to maintain public safety. That is what “defunding the police” is all about.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I support a statewide citizens initiative process if and only if it is coupled with significant reforms to our campaign spending system. In other states, wealthy corporations and shadowy organizations have used dark money to manipulate citizens initiatives. A genuine citizens initiative process should level the playing field, so that the outcomes represent the people’s needs, not corporate greed.
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 strongly disagree with Gov. David Ige’s decision to suspend open government laws. While I understand that this act was intended to facilitate urgent government meetings during a time of social distancing, I believe that we need to better employ 21st century technology to increase access to government operations. For example, it’s disgraceful that we don’t allow remote testimony at the State Capitol, which leaves neighbor island and disabled residents without a voice in our legislative processes.
We need to reinvent government to be more inclusive of marginalized people, especially working families. We should also require the Office of Information Practices to resolve complaints about access to public records or open meetings regulations within six months. The failure to have these complaints properly addressed cripples the public’s access to vital and often time-sensitive information about government operations.
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?
Combating climate change is one of my top priorities. According to the Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission, over the coming decades, sea level rise will expose approximately 6,500 structures and 19,800 people statewide to chronic flooding, costing our state $19 billion and endangering public health.
We need to establish a Green New Deal for Hawaii that uplifts workers’ prosperity and the well-being of our planet. I will sponsor legislation to rapidly expand access to green jobs that pay at least $17/hour and provide basic labor benefits, like paid family and sick leave.
I also support instituting green fees for visitors, which would increase funding for conservation and sustainability programs. New Zealand’s green fee initiative allows it to spend $188 per tourist on environmental programs. Hawaii spends just $9 per tourist. We need to catch up.
Additionally, we must begin a managed retreat from our coastlines before sea levels rise any higher. Finally, we should implement a carbon tax, which the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has called the most effective way to combat climate change. One study found that a carbon tax could generate up to $365 million in its first year of implementation in our state.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The most pressing issue in my community is Hawaii’s high cost of living. When I grew up, my family, like so many others, often couldn’t pay our bills. One job should be enough, but it’s not for most people living in our state today.
We need to raise the minimum wage to at least $17/hour. According to the Department of Business, Economic Development, and Tourism, in 2020, a single minimum wage worker must earn at least $17.63 to survive on our shores. At our current rate of $10.10 per hour, however, full-time minimum-wage employees earn only $21,008 annually, $15,000 less than what they need to survive.
Additionally, we must establish paid sick and family leave for all workers. It is unconscionable that, as the coronavirus pandemic lingers on, many workers have to choose between earning a paycheck and preserving their health when they become ill. Studies show that the annual cost to cover 16 weeks of family leave for a worker earning $48,000 would be roughly $58, a little over one dollar per week for invaluable financial security.
Finally, we need to build truly affordable housing for those earning no more than 60 percent of area median income.
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.
Economic diversification is key to Hawaii’s future. My district is home to West Hawaii’s iconic coffee and macadamia nut farmers, and is also rich in agricultural production of all kinds. We are additionally home to numerous clean energy projects. Both sustainable agriculture and clean energy are growing industries that benefit people and our planet. They should be centerpieces in our economic recovery and diversification efforts.
In the special session of 2005, legislators enacted Act 8, which established the Hawaii 2050 Task Force to develop a statewide sustainability plan for the 21st century. When elected, I will sponsor legislation to create a Hawaii 2030 Economic Diversification Task Force, which would be responsible for crafting a plan to significantly diversify the islands’ economy within a decade.
It would be folly to continue to allow our state’s economy to be driven so heavily by tourism. Our visitor industry is not just fragile when emergencies happen. It’s also one of the largest carbon-emitting industries in Hawaii, producing approximately 6.3 million tons of carbon each year.
We need to find ways to guarantee prosperity for all, while preserving our planet’s health. It is, perhaps, the most urgent task our society can undertake.