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 Alan Akao, Democratic candidate for state House District 51, which includes Kailua and Waimanalo. The other Democratic candidates are Coby Chock, Scott Grimmer and Lisa Marten.
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 Hawaii’s response was inadequate, hesitant and full of miscommunication. Effective leaders do not wait and see what others do before making hard decisions. The stay-at-home and quarantine orders should have begun earlier, we should have dug into federal resources and began pushing those funds out immediately, and there should have been investment in fixing and updating our unemployment services at the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations as soon as the insufficiency was identified.
There should have been coordinated efforts between the state and county leaders and a unified response plan. Instead strife and fighting between agency and legislative bodies continues. There needs to be a more robust contact identification, isolation and tracing for confirmed COVID-19 infections. There is a lack of information being provided as to numbers of cases amongst the military population here in Hawaii and exemptions that lack a reasonable policy basis.
While this is an uncertain and difficult time, there needs to be a health-care guided focus to the stay-at-home orders, and to ensure recovery of our economic sectors we need swift, concise action.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
Budget cuts only will stifle our economic recovery. We must avoid austerity measures that will set us back in the long run. Before we look at cutting costs and budget items we should examine areas in which we can stimulate economic growth to boost the budget projections. While there may be a focus on tax collection and revenue, we shouldn’t discount taking on federally backed low-interest to no-interest loans for certain stop-gap measures.
Long overdue may be the need to legalize, commodify and tax cannabis to bring additional revenue. There will have to be cuts though. Renovation, construction and maintenance projects that are not critical infrastructure may need to be delayed. Unfilled and vacant positions among state agencies and departments may need to be evaluated to be frozen or eliminated if not deemed vital for the operation of the department.
Protecting frontline workers and first responders, teachers and other staffing positions and wages should be the priority. Technological upgrades and services, luxury items and discretionary spending needs to be cut where possible.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
There are quite a few industries that we are primed to support to help stimulate and diversify our economy. We cannot just start from scratch but look at the areas in which we are seeing high growth. The 2019 Hawaii’s Targeted Emerging Industries report looked at ways for Hawaii to expand its economic sectors beyond the reliance on tourism and military.
Some of those emerging sectors that showed the highest growth and potential also coincidentally fall under health care-related sectors. Those include pharmacy services, specialty health care services, and hospitals and nursing facilities. Wise investment in growing these industries will help Hawaii in dealing with the fallout of coronavirus as well as prepare us for future pandemics.
By growing these fields of industry we could also attract and improve collateral industries such as pharmaceutical research and medical equipment development and production. By having access to and production of our own industry equipped to deal with health challenges while adding a new layer of diverse economic drivers, Hawaii will be a much better position for the future.
We also have industries that highlight our unique geographical and cultural sectors such as cultural services and production, agriculture and tv/film production.
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 am not satisfied with the current plans to pay for the state’s unfunded liabilities but I acknowledge that there needs to be an investment and sacrifice from a variety of stakeholders if the state is going to reach its obligation to government pensions and benefits for its public sector workers. There cannot be a continuation of over-promising and underfunding and assumed risk investments to pay down the state’s obligations.
These reforms may need to be voted on by the public rather than just done legislatively as its of major concern for the entire state. A standing oversight committee or board that reviews Hawaii’s unfunded liabilities and pension programs with satisfactory decision making power may benefit and lead to better action toward reducing the obligation.
I do not believe in reductions in benefits or pension contributions for public employees in light of virus-related budget shortfalls unless it is opt-in on the employees side and only as necessary to provide mutual cashflow for families during this critical economic time.
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?
Multiple branches of government exist as checks and balances so that one sector does not govern recklessly or against the best interest of the people. While I may disagree with certain decisions that are being made, there needs to be a call for unity. Two more years of Gov. David Ige’s term may be the most critical two years for this state given the overwhelming stress of national and local issues compounding on one another.
Legislative, executive, and department leadership needs to sit down and work together to protect Hawaii’s most vulnerable, which grows daily, to ensure a thriving community. I am committed to working for solutions and being respectful but not resistant to providing constructive criticism and input in strategic planning. My candidacy is not about building a political career but providing a public service during challenging times.
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?
As a deputy public defender, I am intimately familiar with police and the criminal justice system. I review police reports and body-worn camera footage, know and understand application of the laws and examine police procedure and policy as it applies to criminal offenses and investigations regularly.
Hawaii’s law enforcement standards are woefully inadequate. There need to be more open and transparent procedures for law enforcement discipline and performance, increased decision making and oversight for our police standards board, and we need to look at law enforcement licensing and increased specialty training for dealing with juveniles, mental health response and community policing.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Yes. A citizens initiative process would allow for a majority of the people and community to speak out and vote on critical issues that legislative and executive leadership is unwilling to move on. The legislative session in Hawaii is already so limited in time and hours and a citizens initiative process could provide an outlet for stronger community engagement and civic duty.
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 absolutely disagreed with the suspension of the open government and records laws under the emergency order and believe there was no relevant nexus for such a suspension. Even if the issue was capacity or privacy, open government records laws have rational protections that prevent misuse.
Transparency and accountability need to be at the forefront of government operation as government itself is based on the money and considerations of the public in the best interest of the public good. If necessary I would look into introducing legislation that would prevent public disclosure laws from being suspended even during an emergency order period.
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?
While climate change is not at the forefront of my policy priorities I do acknowledge that Hawaii is taking steps to prepare for climate change but we need to continue to place reasonable protections and contribute to what is really a global challenge.
For sea level rise and threats to the reefs we need to take a hardline stance against the use of shoreline hardening structures such as seawalls and invest and encourage aquatic mitigation measures. We need to continue to regulate the use of fossil fuels and incentivize the use of alternative energy production and use to combat carbon emissions effects on our environment and we need to continue to ban or prohibit harmful chemicals or plastics that find their way into our sewer or water systems.
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 district, I believe, is safety and health care. During the early reports of COVID -19 community spread, the Kailua portion of the district showed a higher than average concentration of cases due to the abundance of tourism that comes through both Kailua and Waimanalo, and the age and vulnerability of our kupuna within the community. Addressing adequate health care and services is important. There needs to discussion about free or heavily subsidized health care for all in our community and the continued support of health care facilities and services on the Windward side.
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.
A law or policy that limits carrying capacity of residents, business visitors, tourism and military. Hawaii is a small state and geographically one of the most isolated places in the world. Our population and resources were sustainable historically but in modern times our consumption of resources and carrying capacity of visitors, new residents, temporary residents, military personnel, business visitors and investors far exceeds our capacity to provide the basic necessities for the community. This creates economic and social inequality.
A cap, limit or tax on tourism and visitors may have allowed for stronger economic diversification in the past and may still lead to that given COVID -19’s effect on the tourism-based industries. The land and benefits bestowed upon our military branches and our capacity to host our military should also be mutually beneficial, but we must acknowledge that housing options provided on the military base are not sufficient and our military serviceman and women seek housing off-base.
The competitive housing market leads to local families being priced out. If we continue to ignore that Hawaii has an over-burdened carrying capacity then many issues such as economic inequality, lack of affordable housing, homelessness and others will continue to grow.