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 Patrick Branco, Democratic candidate for state House District 50, which includes Kailua and Kaneohe Bay. The other Democratic candidate is Micah Pregitzer.
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 believe that the coronavirus pandemic was an extremely hard to foresee threat for the State of Hawaii’s leadership. It was harder still to take precautions, as our economy is so singularly dependent on tourism revenue. Generally, I think state leaders have done a decent job of responding to the crisis — with Lt. Gov. Josh Green standing out in terms of providing a clear, consistent voice to the public.
On the flip side, there has not been clear, consistent messaging from Gov. David Ige and this crisis emphasized his inability to properly lead our state. There were pitfalls, at first, with a lack of speed to respond, and a lack of coordination between levels of government; but generally, the state has done well to stop the spread of COVID-19 and Hawaii’s comparatively low rates of infection are a testament to their efforts.
The first priority in the government response was, as it should be, the safety and health of the people of Hawaii. As such, I believe that increasing the availability of testing was a necessary step, as were social distancing measures and the stay-at-home orders. I am now very interested in developing the process of re-opening in a way that safeguards public health while respecting the rights of individuals to pursue their interests and for businesses to stay open, recover and eventually prosper.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
COVID-19 has had a massive impact on all budgets — for the State of Hawaii, and for each of us individuals. As Hawaii is constitutionally required to have a balanced budget, my first priority would be to use all of the money we have available to us. To that end, I would use special funds which can’t otherwise be used, exhaust the rainy day fund, convert CIP funds to general funds and raise GO bonds to pay for the CIPs (such as Aloha Stadium), and work with our federal delegation to buttress the state budget with available COVID-19-related sources of federal aid.
If this alone is not sufficient to close the budget gap, we should work to protect the jobs of state workers as we look to budget cuts. In general, I would prefer to cut back on programs which have not yet started being implemented than cut programs in progress. I’m also skeptical of tax increases being effective, as our month-to-month tax collection rate is down massively and our working families are already struggling.
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 should be trying a variety of approaches to diversify our economy. Rather than heavily bet on one additional industry, we should try to go in a variety of directions to increase our options. Some great ideas for diversifying the economy include:
• Legalize industrial hemp and use tax credits/subsidies to incentivize the creation of agricultural co-ops and companies that can produce new and innovative products that Hawaii can export.
• Invite companies to test and develop a broad variety of renewable energies in the islands — including wave, solar, hydrogen, geothermal and biofuels.
• Incentivizing the continued growth of the film/stage industry in Hawaii, including the encouragement of the creation of local production companies.
• Investing in infrastructure spending, including the renovation of Aloha Stadium, the expansion of our sewer infrastructure, and the modernization of our schools.
As a legislator, I will introduce bills that advance these goals, support legislation that works toward economic diversification, and listen to community ideas on how to achieve these goals.
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?
The issue of unfunded liabilities is a complicated and serious issue. Before we saw the impact of COVID-19, the ERS was underfunded by more than $13 billion, and the EUTF was underfunded by more than $12 billion. The unfunded liabilities have likely grown as a result of the market downturn.
Unfortunately, there are no easy fixes. Retiree pensions and health-care obligations are constitutionally protected and represent a contract with our state workers. They must be paid.
This is a bad time to cut pension contributions. Because of the market downturn, equities are priced at a discount.
The Legislature has to work constructively with the executive branch and government unions to provide benefits for workers while also making sure we have enough left to pay for public education, public safety, health and social services, and environmental protection.
Ultimately, the only way to avoid painful cuts is to increase revenue by growing the economy.
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 off, I don’t think it’s the responsibility of a member of the legislative branch (which I would be if elected) to instill confidence in members of the executive branch. There is a general responsibility to increase trust and confidence in government, but I’m not going to say that it’s the job of one branch to promote the other, especially when they are often checking and balancing each other’s interests.
With that being said, as a diplomat, I am a firm believer in cooperation and cross-branch coordination wherever it is possible. I will do my part to be transparent and accountable to my constituents and support legislation that advances this cause. Being transparent and demonstrating an ability to address and solve major problems is what the key behaviors are to ensure public confidence in government.
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?
I think the recent calls for reform are an important issue for every state to consider, including Hawaii. Policing and police accountability in Hawaii is not a new issue and we have been hearing more recent calls for accountability from community advocates. I think it’s important to build a relationship between police and Hawaii’s residents, especially with some of our more vulnerable populations.
When we engage in tools for accountability, like body cameras, citizen oversight boards, community policing and open records, we are building a bridge for trust, transparency and engagement that relies on a relationship between the police and the people they are serving and protecting.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Yes, I support the initiative process. Giving citizens another way to directly impact the legislative process, in this case by more directly impacting the legislative agenda, is in perfect alignment with my philosophy on government.
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 Gov. Ige’s decision to suspend open government laws during the pandemic. Restoring transparency is critical to restoring public trust in government. We need more transparency behind government decisions, not less.
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?
Hawaii should be engaging with its top experts, agencies, and organizations in climate change and climate resiliency response. Sea level rise, coral bleaching and water availability are only a few of many issues Hawaii faces from impacts of climate change.
This is a subject we should be talking about consistently. As we make adjustments to our economy to recover from COVID-19 shutdowns, we should integrate the impact of climate change into these conversations to build what resiliency we can against future crises.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The most pressing issue for Kailua and Kaneohe Bay is ensuring the smooth reopening of our local economy and facilitating the economic recovery of small businesses.
To tackle this issue, I will do the following:
• Continue encouraging appropriate social distancing and public health risk mitigation policies to prevent COVID-19 from spreading and forcing businesses to stay closed.
• Work with the federal delegation to ensure that Hawaii receives and distributes federal aid for small businesses affected by COVID-19.
• Explore small business loans for those affected by COVID-19.
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 needs to support access to wealth-building for its long-time residents and their families. Through encouraging innovative tax credits, limits on new resident purchases, and incentives for long-term residency, we could find ways to alleviate “pricing out” and the “brain drain.”
With that being said, real estate is a driver in affordability and we need to reassess how this industry impacts Hawaii’s most pressing issue: cost of living. With key levers in place, Hawaii could be an example of a community that thrives because its long-time residents are thriving and not because its land is selling at the highest rate to the highest bidder.
If we build a Hawaii that is focused on the well-being and success of its residents, both rural and urban, we can create an economy that benefits from tourism as a bonus, not a lifeline.