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 Karl Rhoads, Democratic candidate for State Senate District 13, which includes Liliha, Palama, Iwilei, Kalihi, Nuʻuanu, Pacific Heights, Pauoa, Lower Tantalus and Downtown Honolulu. The other Democratic candidate is Kevin McDonald.
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?
The response to COVID-19 has been very effective. As of June 8, we have the fewest deaths per capita of any state, the fewest cases per capita and the lowest number of people infected per active case. This is attributable to good decisions and, very importantly, to all of us complying with the social distancing orders.
The crash in the visitor industry was probably inevitable. Even without the 14-day quarantine, the industry would have been seriously damaged because people were afraid to get on a plane and still are. And we would have risked a much worse health crisis.
Of course, hindsight is 20/20, but I would have taken the unemployment insurance backlog more seriously more quickly. When you are unemployed, not knowing what the status of your claim is, is a major problem. At this point, I would move quicker to calibrate the quarantine length to test results. As an interim measure, if you can prove a negative test just before arriving, then a five-day quarantine followed by another test would reduce risk substantially. Until we have a vaccine or a cure, there will be some risk and we can’t stay closed forever.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
In the short run, we shouldn’t try to balance the budget. The state constitution allows us to borrow in time of emergency and we should borrow enough to keep unemployment benefits flowing and to avoid draconian cuts in government operations. Many of the things government does are needed more than ever, like health insurance through Med-QUEST.
While we cannot tax our way out of this problem, an income tax increase for those in the upper 5 percent is necessary to minimize the extent of borrowing. For those still employed and making hundreds of thousands a year, an increase of their marginal income tax is a tiny sacrifice to make compared to the crisis the unemployed are in.
In addition, cutting government will make the recession worse and result in more job losses in the private sector which in turn will reduce tax revenues. If you want to understand why in more detail, google “the paradox of thrift.”
This pandemic is a catastrophe beyond anything most of us have ever seen. There will be a lasting impact on the state’s budget no matter what we do. All we can do is minimize the damage and put off cuts as long as 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?
For as long as I can remember we have been discussing this topic. We have known for decades that we were vulnerable to a prolonged downturn in tourism. The pandemic is the sum of those fears.
Once the pandemic is over or we have gotten used to living with the risk of infection, we will turn to face the problems we had before that haven’t gone away. Global warming is the most urgent of those problems. Hawaii is already a leader in renewable energy and we have all the natural advantages: wind, solar, geothermal, fallow ag land and wave energy resources. My opinion is that we should strive to become world leaders in all the technologies involved and once we have switched entirely to renewable fuels for our own energy needs, we should start manufacturing products that require lots of energy. This is going to be a growth industry for decades and one with huge potential markets.
Having said that, the visitor industry is going to be important for the foreseeable future. I believe we should recalibrate toward higher-spending visitors. The pandemic has reminded us all how nice it is to have less crowded roads and beaches.
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 was satisfied with the plan before the pandemic hit. We have been very aggressive in paying down this large debt and had every reason to believe there was light at the end of the tunnel because of those pro-active measures.
The schedule we are currently on is going to be hard to keep unless we just get lucky and we have a vaccine by the end of the calendar year. Depending on what the federal government ends up providing in loans and the terms for those loans, it might make sense to borrow money to pay the unfunded liability obligations per the original schedule. Otherwise, we probably need to stretch those payments out longer.
For constitutional reasons it will be very difficult to reduce benefits. I would argue it would be completely unfair to do so anyway. The tradeoff you make working for the government is relatively low wages during your working life and an actual pension with a fixed benefit once you retire unlike most people in the private sector now where the market risk of investing is on the worker not the employer.
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?
There is always some disagreement when people are making collective decisions. My impression is that the top leadership have put their egos aside for the most part and tried to do what’s right for the citizens of the state.
As I mentioned in my answer to Question 1, it’s hard to argue with the net result. As of June 8, we are in great shape compared to most states.
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?
First question: Yes, it’s certainly an issue here in Hawaii. Beyond that, it’s hard for me to say anything meaningful. I’m not African-American and don’t know what it’s like.
My observation is that race relations are generally better in Hawaii than in other states I’ve lived. The history is different and the edges aren’t so jagged, but racism certainly still exists and not just against African-Americans.
Second question: I support use of body cams during all interactions between law enforcement and the public. I also support more walking of beats and community policing efforts.
Third question: I support disclosure of police records in the same manner other government employee disciplinary records are released. As a society we give law enforcement so much power that if anything, they should be held to a higher standard than other government employees.
I support fully funding oversight boards. There isn’t much point in having them if they can’t function.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
No. The commonly held view is that citizens initiatives are more democratic than the legislative process. I disagree. To get a question on the ballot you generally have to collect a certain number of signatures. Well-organized, well-funded groups are the ones who are able to do this. These are exactly the same groups that people complain have too much influence at the Legislature. If you set the number very low (like to run for office), then you have a book to read before you vote and only a tiny minority of people will do this conscientiously. Even in California where you have to have a lot of signatures, the voting packet is huge and I doubt better decisions are made than would have been made at the Legislature.
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 disagreed and another senator and I contacted the governor asking him to change his original decision to suspend the entire Hawaii Revised Statutes chapter on public records. To his credit, governor amended his original order. The new order gives agencies flexibility in the timing of the response but they still have to respond as quickly as they can.
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?
There are two levels here. First is what we are doing to stop climate change. Second is what we need to do to react to it.
On the first, economists universally agree that the best way to combat greenhouse gas emissions is to tax carbon. During both the 2019 and 2020 legislative sessions, a carbon tax bill I introduced passed the Senate. The one this year, Senate Bill 3150, was scheduled for its first hearing in the House the day after we recessed because of the pandemic. This was one of the first carbon bills to make it this far in any state in the union.
Regarding our response to the effects, I have introduced a number of bills and resolutions on the topic from requiring global warming disclosures on the sale of real estate to planning for the future of Waikiki, most of which will be below sea level in the not too distant future.
This is the most important issue, period. Global warming is already happening. More hurricanes, drought followed by rain bombs and rising sea levels are all going to change Hawaii in ways that are going to make it a much less pleasant place.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Setting aside the pandemic and global warming, affordable housing continues to be the most pressing issue for most of my constituents. It has been a priority since I was first elected in 2006, but it is such a monumental problem that even with significant victories to my credit, it remains a dominant issue. It was my bill that saved Kukui Gardens as affordable. Building the Senior Residence at Iwilei was one of my legislative priorities. This year two of my three priority asks were for affordable housing. I requested an infusion of $75 million into the Rental Housing Revolving Fund (RHRF) and for money for the Hawaii Public Housing Authority’s senior affordable housing project on School Street. The Legislature approved a $50 million infusion into the RHRF and funds to move forward with School Street.
The flip side to the affordable housing coin is homelessness, which is also a very difficult issue especially in Chinatown and Iwilei. I have spent most of my effort in this area on getting treatment for the mentally ill and allowing judges to order medication for those who are a danger to themselves or others and who can safely be treated outside a hospital setting.
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.
The number of people right on the financial edge before the pandemic began was way too high, as was well-known. When the pandemic hit many had no reserves and quickly lost their jobs and with their jobs their health-care insurance. In some ways, those who didn’t lose their jobs were in a worse spot because many had to go into work despite the health threat and they were at the mercy of their employers to take time off to avoid infecting their kupuna or other vulnerable household members.
The one big idea is that we need to take to heart the years of expressions of concern about those in the bottom 40 percent of wage earners who struggle even when times are good. Specifically, untying health insurance from employment needs to happen. Paid family and medical leave (like every industrialized country in the world has) needs to be implemented. Finally, everyone should have a preexisting unemployment account where you can simply notify the unemployment office that you are unemployed and the benefits begin. If there are disputes, they can be resolved later, but access to the benefits immediately would take so much pressure off someone who has just been laid off.