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 Keith Kogachi, Democratic candidate for state House District 17, which includes Hawaii Kai and Kalama Valley.
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 primary priority I believe should be saving lives. Accordingly, we should look to relevant statistics to assess the performance of our state leaders to the COVID-19 pandemic. Most, if not all sources for tracking COVID-19 statistics, will disclose on a per capita basis or incident (for cases and deaths) rate basis, that Hawaii has among the lowest, if not lowest, rates for both cases and deaths among the 50 states. Based on these results to date, I would conclude that our elected officials have performed well in protecting citizens from this deadly virus.
Hindsight is 20/20 as initially there was much unknown about this virus, including the potential for a resurgence of the virus as we now reopen our economy. Recently, other states and cities have either paused their reopening and/or are considering plans to reimpose stay at home orders. Our elected and public health officials have warned that cases will increase as we reopen our economy. Further, there currently is no effective treatment available and a vaccine is still to be developed.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
We should confirm the additional amount of federal support that Hawaii and other states can expect, as the House recently passed a nearly $3 trillion relief package (HEROES Act) that includes support for state and local governments. Thus, we should provide flexibility in budget decisions to allow for adjustments. This flexibility is also necessary to deal with the uncertainties of the pandemic and the possible delays or pause in the reopening due to the potential resurgence of the virus.
Further, I believe a lesson learned from the Great Recession is that we should avoid budget cuts and the resulting furloughs and layoffs that may delay or prolong the recovery in our economy. Accordingly, we should also ensure that unemployment benefits remain in place for as long as possible (including additional extensions if necessary) as our economy gradually is reopened and recovers. I would prioritize programs and services that are of an immediate health and safety need and services deemed essential should we need to make the difficult decision to cut programs and services, which I believe is premature at this point.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
As we make this effort for diversification, we should perform a lesson-learned analysis of our past attempts at diversification going back to the 1970s. This process should then focus on the resources we possess (land, human resources, laws and regulations, tax incentives, transportation, technology, education and related job training facilities and programs, etc.) that would provide the basics for further analysis that results in the needed changes in resources such as zoning changes for land use, financial incentives such as tax breaks and investment (cost) required for development of educational and training resources to facilitate and support diversification efforts.
This effort will require the input from government, for profit and non-profit organizations and the general public to ensure general consensus, including consensus on proposed changes to existing laws and regulations to support the development of industries and the related products and services to diversify our economy.
Based on the steps described above, I believe diversification is a long-term goal and therefore should not detract from our immediate attention and efforts to ensure we are on a path for sustained — subject to successful efforts in controlling the spread of the virus — path for recovery in our current industries, including tourism.
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?
As we continue with contributions to fully fund our unfunded pension liabilities, we must be prepared for untimely financial stress from budget constraints resulting from recessions as we are currently in due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Pension contributions together with contributions for health benefits for retirees and other fixed or non-discretionary costs such as Medicaid and debt service payments may result in less funds available for funding our ongoing programs and services during periods of financial stress.
Contributions are also impacted by the ongoing investment risks from potential losses from pension plan investments or, investment returns that are less than what is projected as necessary to fully fund our pension liabilities. With respect to our obligation for health-care benefits, the same risks apply but the obligation to fund this liability will also be impacted by the growth in health-care costs which could be an added burden in the future as employees retire.
While reforms have been made in the past primarily in the pension plan, I believe we will need to examine all options to ensure an adequate balance between funding for our fixed or non-discretionary costs, including our pension and health benefits and funding for our current 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?
The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented. It is a health risk that has caused significant damage to our economy as reflected in record unemployment rates. Further, Hawaii obviously is not the only state facing either record or otherwise severe budget shortfalls. One nonpartisan budget organization, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, estimates that the total budget shortfall for 2021 for all 50 states at $370 billion compared to the highest budget shortfall of $230 billion in 2010 during the 5-year period (2009 to 2013) of the Great Recession.
This compares to Hawaii’s estimate, as reported by various news outlets and depending on the source of the estimates, of $1 billion to $1.5 billion in its projected budget shortfall for 2021. As further reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, unemployment rates in 43 states including Hawaii hit record levels in April 2020 (Hawaii having the third-highest rate at 22.3% behind Nevada and Michigan with an overall national rate of 14.4%) since unemployment data began in 1976.
Given the above situation, I believe our elected officials, including appointees and employees in all branches of state government, should be working collaboratively to solve the massive problems resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.
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 believe this is a broader issue than law enforcement but focusing on law enforcement practices, we should first review with law enforcement their standards, policies and procedures. This review should include operational policies including procedures to ensure compliance and, if warranted, disciplinary procedures to address noncompliance with policies. The scope of this review should also cover recruitment and training standards and procedures. Public records such as court cases of excessive use of force should also be reviewed. Input from police commissions, prosecutors and the judiciary should also be covered. Finally, we should provide the opportunity for the public to also provide input to this review.
What has occurred in Minneapolis and other jurisdictions on the mainland should be of concern to us here in Hawaii, but we should also be balanced in our approach to this issue. Accordingly, we should have a clear understanding of what we are expecting from law enforcement by learning more about what our police officers face daily in dealing with drugs and narcotics, violent crimes, domestic abuse and other violations of laws. On Oahu this resource is available to citizens in a 11- week course conducted by the Honolulu Police Department: Citizens Police Academy.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I would support processes that facilitate the involvement and participation in the legislative process by our residents that are reflected by such measures as laws passed through this process in other states and also by increased voter participation (increases in both registration and voter turnout) such as a bill pending in the Legislature that would automatically register voters as part of obtaining a driver’s license or state ID (Senate Bill 2005).
If the experience in other states have shown improvement in citizen participation in the legislative process by the aforementioned improvement in the measures I noted previously, I would consider a bill proposing a citizens initiative process.
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 support public records laws, which for the most part were suspended as part of the governor’s emergency supplemental proclamation issued on March 16, 2020, as part of the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The suspension, covering public agency meetings and records and information practices, among other laws, were intended to “more effectively provide emergency relief and engage in emergency management functions, including, but not limited to, implementing social distancing measures, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
The governor subsequently issued in another supplemental proclamation on May 5 an update restoring portions of the law related to public agency meetings and information practices. As I noted in my responses to other questions, the COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented as a health care crisis (global) and in its severity with respect to the damage to economies across the world, including Hawaii. Further, much was still unknown about this virus in the early days after the governor’s initial emergency proclamation issued on March 5, 2020.
As a lesson learned, among others, the issue of transparency during times of crisis should be examined as part of an overall review of transparency in government.
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?
The Department of Land and Natural Resources issued a report in November 2019 to comply with the law requiring annual reporting to the governor about information necessary to track progress toward implementing climate mitigation and adaptation efforts. The report addressed implementation of adaptation to sea level rise impacts. The report identified four components of this initiative, including:
• Maintaining best available information and practices on sea level rise adaptation;
• Providing guidance to continue for planning and permitting;
• Engaging communities to help determine priorities and,
• Providing support to conduct vulnerability assessments.
As a process is in place for addressing rising sea levels, I would recommend that we continue to monitor progress in the four components identified above through the mandatory annual reports that are required by law (Hawaii Revised Statutes 225P-3(k). Based on such progress, I would recommend corrective measures should there not be sufficient progress toward meeting the goals or milestones identified in the DLNR report.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
I believe that, similar to the entire state, the most pressing issue for the district is the control of the COVID-19 virus as we reopen our economy and the recovery of jobs as quickly as possible.
Subject to the risks of a resurgence, I would like to see the state prepared to handle a resurgence through, as already communicated by state and county leaders, enhanced and robust additional testing capacity, contact tracing and quarantining capacity.
Our public health leadership has informed the public that we should expect more cases as we reopen our economy but I believe the public would expect more information about how the state has the equipment, infrastructure such as bed capacity and qualified health care professionals to handle any resurgence in the virus. Accordingly, I would be pressing our elected leaders to provide more information about how the state is prepared to handle any resurgence of the virus. This type of information should be part of the daily update of status of cases especially during periods with an upward trend in new cases.
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 unfortunate situation with our unemployment systems highlights the need for the state to address the following:
• Modernization of technology and back-up/work around/back up plans. Moving forward with modernization of our technology focusing on key systems and applications subject to available funding. Alternative measures such as enhanced work-around plans and more robust back-up plans using the existing systems should be investigated as any modernization, even with available funding, will take time to acquire and implement.
• Technology is not the sole solution. I do not believe we should presume that a modern system will be the sole answer in periods of crisis. Technology will enable by hopefully automating tasks that may currently be manually performed but ultimately, we will need to have temporary staff available to support permanent employees as certain tasks involving interaction (i.e., directly with claimant to resolve questions) and decisions (i.e., rejection of claim as not qualifying for unemployment benefits) will still require the human element in the process.
• Flexibility in human resource policies. A lesson learned is that we need to have a process, working with our unions, to more quickly reassign temporarily personnel during periods of emergencies and crisis.