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 Kim Coco Iwamoto, Democratic candidate for State House District 26, which includes McCully, Kaheka, Kakaako and Downtown. The other Democratic candidate is Scott Saiki.
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?
By June 8, the last person infected with COVID-19 in New Zealand (NZ) had recovered. Evidently, this Pacific nation (which seems to have much in common with Hawaii) implemented the model response.
Like Hawaii, NZ is surrounded by water, but, when it comes to comparing the havoc the coronavirus wreaked on our distinct island economies, the similarities end there.
NZ’s economic well-being depends on high quality food production; ours relies on tourism. Their 5 million residents are content to host 3.8 million tourists/year; our 1.4 million residents endure 10.4 million visitors.
NZ confirmed its first coronavirus case February 28, and banned incoming visitors March 19. Our first case was confirmed March 3 and on March 19 we were still welcoming visitors taking advantage of ridiculously low rates to fly in from cities with dangerously high infection levels.
With Hawaii’s infection and death per capita statistics double those of NZ, one has to ask how actions taken by members of the Economic Recovery Panel convened by my opponent, Scott Saiki, and dominated by tourism interests led to this outcome. Unfortunately, no one on the task force thought they should ask the airline industry to stop importing COVID-19 to Hawaii.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
Budget shortfalls begin with the state’s failure to close tax loopholes and collect fair-share taxes from corporations, its wealthiest residents, and out-of-state real estate investors. When Trump issued tax giveaways for the super-rich, our leaders failed to amend the state tax code so it could capture a portion of that windfall to upgrade our obsolete IT infrastructure.
This context is important because calls for Hawaii’s lowest-wage earners and government employees to carry their “fair share” of cuts are dangerous. Providing public services and a social safety net are primary functions of government; I would not look to these programs for major cuts. Defunding programs aimed at helping those most in need only intensifies their needs and results in higher costs.
We can save $350 million/year by reducing administrative waste in health-care spending. (See response to Question 4.) The U.S. Department of Defense has been shortchanging our public education system $300 million/year by avoiding impact repayments for the past 20 years. As state legislators go after federal funding to help Hawaii’s families weather the pandemic, any amount considered a loan should be taken as a drawdown against the $6 billion DOD owes the state.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
Pre-pandemic Hawaii was spending $108 million/year promoting tourism, only so we could add “import contagion” to the list of negative impacts our people and environment already endure. I support redirecting that investment toward the infrastructure needed for a circular economy, one that displaces wasteful and polluting industries with those that keep precious resources in continual use while regenerating the natural systems we need to thrive.
With over 80% of the food we consume imported to the islands, and with much of that food lacking the nutrition we need to stay healthy, Hawaii would do well to focus on creating and sustaining local markets for fresh, minimally processed food products.
An equally promising concept promoted by a broad range of innovators is “waste-to-wealth.” These programs capture materials otherwise discarded in landfills, turning them into highly marketable products.
At the start of the 2020 legislative session, a suite of bills crafted by Hawaii Green New Deal advocates was introduced to stimulate economic activity in the regenerative agriculture, resource recovery and renewable energy sectors. The Legislature must revisit these bills and use them to stand up and fund projects that will put Hawaii’s people to work building a circular economy.
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?
Hundreds of thousands of our neighbors, friends and family members depend on the benefits and pensions promised them. We elected our government leaders and gave them the authority to make these employment contracts on our behalf; we don’t get to break these promises after workers fulfilled their part of the bargain.
These earned pensions and benefits are part of the social safety net that gets many families through crises like the one we are experiencing; and their ability to purchase goods and services throughout their retirements provides a steady stream of income for Hawaii’s small business owners as well. We can meet our state’s obligation to deliver health-care coverage and improve the delivery of health care to all of Hawaii’s residents. The Hawaii Health Authority All-Payer Proposal delivers the benefits of universal health care while eliminating administrative waste.
Dr. Stephen Kemble, who served on the Hawaii Health Authority, explains that “self-insuring EUTF and Medicaid are tried and true health-care programs in 29 sister states, and were formerly used successfully in Hawaii.”
As thousands of unemployed individuals will soon fall in the gap between Medicaid and COBRA; Hawaii must return to these approaches and realize substantial health care cost savings.
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 last time Hawaii’s governor and legislative leaders came to a mutual agreement was before the commencement of this current legislative session, when they agreed to allow corporations and the state to continue paying poverty wages all the way through 2024. By doing so, they effectively agreed to prevent these workers from putting extra savings aside in case of emergencies, while also agreeing to keep more children dependent on free and reduced lunches at school.
Sometimes not “going along, to get along” leads to an improved outcome. I was an elected member of the Hawaii State Board of Education during the last economic recession when the board refused to go along with Gov. Lingle’s proposal to cut 34 school days and furlough state workers (including teachers) in order to save money. Our decision at the time proved to be the right one for all involved.
Public confidence must be earned through actions that consistently put Hawaii’s people first; and when it comes to earning it, every elected official must stand on their own record. If elected, I will maintain a high ethical standard for myself and my staff while welcoming feedback from constituents seeking to hold me accountable.
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?
The protests happening around world and Hawaii are specifically about how Black lives matter — a response to the unchecked power of law enforcement and the racism maintained throughout our institutions. Even in Hawaii, African-Americans are disproportionately targeted and over-penalized by our criminal justice system, along with Native Hawaiians and brown-skinned immigrants.
In 2015, Hawaii ranked fifth in the U.S. for the number of people killed this year by police on a per capita basis. A key contributing factor to Hawaii’s poor ranking is the lack of transparency over police misconduct. We can easily fix this with the mandatory disclosure of misconduct and adequate funding for oversight boards. Any law enforcement personnel in the state, who carries a gun must wear a bodycam to document their behavior.
Furthermore, all law enforcement officers throughout the state must present every suspect, victim and witnesses with a one-page document signed and dated by the officer that clearly states the individual’s right to be treated without discrimination, their right to file a grievance with supervisor’s name and number printed, and finally a statement that indicates any retaliation occurring as a result of a complaint will lead to the officer’s termination.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
While the initiative process is always presented as a way for ordinary citizens to overrule the politics that serve corporations and other monied interests, the sad truth is that, without safegaurds, the process can easily get hijacked by those very same interests as a means to promote dangerous propaganda and undermine grassroots movements.
However, the rising tide of grassroots activism gives hope that this would not happen easily now. We are reclaiming our political power and building coalitions through the Aloha Aina and women’s marches, student-led protests against gun violence and climate change, as well as the massive movements to protect Mauna Kea and affirm that Black lives matter.
As we build on the momentum these social and environmental justice movements, I am cautiously supportive of legislation that would allow such initiatives and determined to include requirements limiting them to single-subject questions, that can only be passed with supermajority support, and can never result in diminished constitutional protections.
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 Ige’s suspension of government transparency and accountability. All requests and records should be digitally processed anyway.
As for open meetings, the rest of the world was using Zoom or other technologies to hold and broadcast meetings; clearly there were less-restrictive alternatives to closed meetings.
In fact, we should demand that the Legislature use Zoom or other technologies to allow citizens to testify during hearings on a permanent basis. This would increase citizen participation, especially from those who cannot make it to hearings on such short notice or because it is cost -prohibitive.
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 climate crisis we created is an existential threat to all life on Earth: If we cannot get our ship to steer clear of the iceberg, solving all the issues discussed above would be like rearranging deck chairs. We need to stop our greenhouse gas emissions by eradicating our dependency on all forms of fossil fuels, including single-use plastics and polystyrene.
We must use detailed, science-based assessments of how sea level rise will alter the coastal landscape on each island to create an inventory of assets that will be lost — and when.
Businesses, residences and public infrastructure will be lost. A recent study by the state’s Office of Coastal and Conservation Lands found that at 3 feet of sea level rise, Hawaii will lose $19 billion in damage to private property. Choosing to not act is not an option. A well-staged and well-timed exodus, that includes salvaging building materials and cleaning up toxic substances, will allow us to resettle the displaced on higher ground and value the new assets that will be created.
New assets would include wetlands that could increase food production, add protection from stronger storms, and support reclamation of natural habitats.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Before the COVID-19 shutdown and economic recession, when it was still possible to walk door-to-door throughout my district and hear directly from neighbors about what issues matter most to them, I learned that many of them were concerned for the homeless.
Today, with up to 30% of the district’s workforce depending on a dwindling unemployment insurance pool to feed their families and secure access to health care in the midst of a global pandemic, I find many of them are concerned with becoming homeless themselves.
Now that legislative leaders have earned their HGEA endorsements by stashing more than $1 billion of federal relief aid into the state’s Rainy Day Fund, they can resume releasing those 2020 earmarked funds for the purposes they were intended — helping those economically injured workers and small businesses that are struggling to survive.
As a champion of working families in my district and throughout the state, if elected, I will make progress on the issues that matter most to working families – including the need for a livable wage, universal health care and affordable housing – a priority.
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.
One big idea is to adopt New Zealand’s economy – with its emphasis on agricultural production of high-quality food, and modest reliance on tourism – as an economic model for post-pandemic Hawaii. NZ measures its economy against a Social Progress Index (SPI), considering environmental and social health: meanwhile, Hawaii’s economic assessment only looks at growth in revenue.
The SPI measures 50 indicators, including access to quality health care, shelter, sanitation, information and education, as well as its citizens personal sense of freedom, equality and inclusion.
NZ demonstrated that valuing the welfare of its citizens did not hurt its economy, it strengthened it. Before the pandemic, few imagined the U.S. government would hand over $600/week to unemployed workers as a modified-universal basic income. A “big idea” initiated by Andrew Yang’s campaign, became a reality six months later.
This is an affirmation that “trickle-up” economics works when jump-starting local recovery efforts. While unemployment insurance is an earned benefit, the extra $600/week was not earned. So why not provide it to all people who are suffering financial hardships: homeless people who cannot sustain employment, non-legit workers and small business entrepreneurs who just lost all their savings?