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 Doni Chong, Republican candidate for state House District 51, which includes Kailua and Waimanalo. The other Republican candidate is Kukana Kama-Toth.
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 share concerns over the conflicting decisions about testing, health care and stay-at-home orders between state leaders. Government responses should have included an organized emergency communication effort from all branches of government, intentional decision-making strategies to keep the economy operational at a microlevel, deliberate focus on effectively controlling virus exposure to vulnerable populations, managing the economic downfall with a sense of urgency, and collaboration with the public and private sector.
Local businesses should have been kept operational alongside virus exposure containment. Testing of travelers should have been at the point of departure, not at the point at arrival since the RT-PCR test can identify between 75 to 85 percent of active infections which supports a successful pre-departure testing policy. Further recommendations would include a COVID-19 clearance card, similar to a TB test card which confirms a traveler’s negative result.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
I would focus on stabilizing the budget while increasing new revenue into the system and making full use of the stateʻs rainy day and hurricane relief funds. Review all expenses and reduce state spending and liabilities that could include review of pension reform and health-care cost regulation. Elimination of CIP and Grant-In-Aid funding for 2020 and prioritization for 2021 based on the most essential services.
Redirection of more of the transient accommodation tax (TAT) receipts to the General Fund or new revenue initiatives such as a 1% COVID-19 surcharge recovery fee assessed alongside the TAT to visitors who stay less than 180 days.
Reviewing the real estate investment trusts (REITs) since we have a large amount of REIT investment per capital and the REIT deserves to be paid to Hawaii. Extending tax exemptions to waive the GET for locally produced food. HB2156 and SB3081 have already gained traction in the House and Senate in 2020.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
Diversification that places focus on “responsible” ecotourism, which is education-based with cultural learning undertones that have an added-value revenue crop such as ulu. Telemedicine with vitality and wellness virtual reality experiences showcasing Hawaii`s longstanding reign of being one of the healthiest states in the nation. Also, military drone technology academies and direct air capture (DAC) renewable research.
High tech agriculture to take advantage of our geographic location and weather so that we seriously expand on sustainability models toward food independence beyond poetic rhetoric. Development of high performance communication and technology infrastructure given the surge toward virtual- and “Zoom”-centric focuses. Research indigenous culture development centers as hosting destination.
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?
Current plans to pay for the stateʻs unfunded liabilities are concerning and the costs are estimated at $88 billion dollars over 30 years. The situation is critical and articulating the correct action today is key. Many seek viable solutions with the most common being increasing government revenues, reducing government spending and growing the economy.
Solutions include fair tax policies on real estate investment trusts (REITs), public-private partnerships (P3), and improving the regulatory environment for businesses. The solution appears to be a macro approach with integration of a strategic multi-dimensional combination.
With 30 years of business experience I believe the Legislature could benefit from a larger representation of business voices to showcase how government and businesses need to co-exist. I believe in improving the regulatory environment for businesses and allowing entrepreneur start-ups the ability to create and expand businesses without facing obstacles at every turn.
We need to allow broader discussions similar to the ones conducted with the House Select Committee on COVID-19 Economic and Financial Preparedness that has displayed the importance of collaboration. If elected, I hope to continue these type of discussions.
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?
The Office of the Governor and the Legislature would gain favor if they focused on the pleas and worries of the people and placed that as a higher priority than internal disputes and disagreements. Facilitated communication mediation between offices could be helpful including the use of hooponopono or the Hawaiian method of reconciliation.
With the high unemployment, loss of tourism, and increase of an unstable economy post COVID-19 the public is becoming angry, cynical, jaded and needlessly afraid. If the public does not have faith in the system, it becomes ineffective at performing one of its main functions to reflect and advance basic societal values and standards of behavior. We should invite our governor and legislators to live aloha alongside the public and model what we are asking our national leaders to reflect, since disharmony in our nation is disheartening.
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?
Protests and fights should battle against hate and discrimination in its entirety, not just color. It should include all professions, political parties, cultures, ethnicities, sexes, religions and nationalities. Reform against prejudicial discrimination is of global, national and state importance.
In accordance with HRS 520 3.5, the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) submitted its 2019 Annual Report to the 2020 Legislature which showed 13 officers (out of 1,889) were disciplined in 2019, down from 21 the year prior. I believe misconduct statistics should be public and available to view.
In response to the civil unrest and protesting, HPD Chief Susan Ballard confirmed that they have already reviewed their policies and maneuvers of force. On a national level, I do not support or agree with the violence occurring with the current protests. Without order in our country, we become lawless. Being lawless leaves society to rule itself, which could ultimately end in destruction.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Yes, I support a citizens initiative process and think it would be beneficial for our state. When Civil Beat conducted a poll in 2018, 60% of voters had a favorable position and said they wanted a citizen initiative while 18% of voters opposed it. I believe we need to get more citizens involved at every level of public life and a citizens initiative could be the positive forward-moving action needed.
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?
On March 16, 2020, the Uniform Information Practices Act (Modified), chapter 92F, HRS (UIPA), and the Sunshine Law, part I of chapter 92, HRS, were suspended by the supplemental memorandum of the governor. The emergency proclamation ceased all in-person hearings and public meetings and the only way the public was involved was through virtual broadcasts and remote technology.
Suspension of public records seemed far-reaching to many and warranted concern. To ensure the public has access to open meetings and public records, I would make public information via virtual delivery and remote technology a requirement. A review of the emergency order wording needs to be done to allow for requirements, not options, to keep the citizens updated and involved.
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?
I share the perspective which most environmental experts believe that Hawaii should start planning now for climate change threats. The Sea Level Rise Vulnerability and Adaptation Report, initially mandated by Act 83 in 2014 (Hawaii Climate Change Adaptation Initiative) and expanded by Act 32 in 2017 (Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Initiative), provided the first statewide assessment of Hawaii`s vulnerability to sea level rise.
Recommendations to prepare for these effects include enforceable renewable energy mandates, protection of watersheds and scientific breeding of hybrid “super corals,” which adapt to warmer water temperatures. Overall, recognition of vulnerability zones for planning, conservation and restoration priorities, and identification and prioritization of smart redevelopment with effective shoreline armoring, needs to be on the forefront of our proactive planning alongside the initiatives of the Office of Climate Change, Sustainability and Resiliency.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The current controversial affordable housing development in Kailua has overwhelmingly divided a community over how to find solutions for affordable living. There have been a total of five affordable housing proposals put forth over several years and all have resulted in the same conclusion from the community: wrong location in Kailua.
Another issue is monster home projects built by foreign developers using loose building code interpretations to get around permitting requirements. Over-tourism is a topic of heated discussion since most residents feel suffocated by the amount of tourist traffic. Solutions to these issues include identification of available land parcels which could serve as a place for affordable tiny home projects and smaller scaled homes. Also, reviewing the building permitting process with stiff enforceable penalties for violations.
Having “tourist-free Sundays” would allow the residents to regain a sense of ownership of their neighborhoods. The reporting of illegal bed and breakfast establishments could also be done. Itʻs not just the tourist and developers who do the damage. It is the neighbor down the street who intentionally rents to tourists that damages the community.
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.
My Big Idea for Hawaii would be having our state recognized as the greenest leader in our country. I would love to showcase our green lush beauty and green smart investment in renewable resources. Being the most environmentally, economically and technologically sound in the areas of culturally centric education and renewable energy.
Imagine futuristic airports, artificial intelligence, military drone technology academies and direct air capture (DAC) renewable applications. Forward-thinking education as a means to diversify the economy and foster inclusive growth through promoting Hawaiian Cultural STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) knowledge along with vocational and entrepreneurial skills.
In the business arena advocating cultural-centric research-based innovation incentive programs which allow companies to apply for grants as long as value is created not only for the company but for society too. Similarly, research and development tax credit incentives to encourage spending. Remembering that our ancestors were the greatest innovators at one time who used the stars, winds, land and oceans to create a lasting legacy. Returning to environmental and cultural roots with economic revenue-making initiatives and a virtual futuristic flair.