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 Eileen Ohara, Democratic candidate for State House District 4, which includes Puna. The other Democratic candidate is Gregor Ilagan.
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?
Hawaii’s government took drastic steps to control the COVID pandemic none too soon. If we hadn’t imposed stay-at-home orders and halted the inflow of tourists by imposing a 14-day quarantine, the number of infections would have been much greater. Unfortunately, these actions also resulted in turning off our economy which is overly dependent on tourism. We now have 22% unemployment and many residents left without income may not qualify for unemployment. While the imposition of wearing face coverings has many people upset, I am pleased to see most of the public complying even outside of places where it is currently required.
I am happy with the state’s response, although state government was not prepared for the massive increase in unemployment claims delaying claims thus putting families at risk. Stays on evictions are another important consideration but there also must be compensation to landlords who may be carrying debt on rental units. Hawaii must become less dependent on imported foods as we’ve known for years and this pandemic makes painfully clear. More support for agricultural producers and more community gardens are needed now and in the long run.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
People often call for cuts to staffing and salaries when there are unanticipated shortfalls in the budget yet that causes a reduction in public services when most needed and a drop in consumer spending which is singly the most important element of our economy. Removing of any superfluous workers would be a first step, but after a decade of tight budgets and cuts, unlikely to fill the gap created by COVID-19 revenue losses. I would not recommend cutting any essential services and would work to ensure that union wage increases are discouraged in these tough economic times.
The state needs to use the COVID-19 stimulus package in ways that provide employment to those currently unemployed and focus on stimulating agriculture, commercial fishing and production of local building products to diversify the economy and buffer the state from situations like this pandemic that choke off the main economic driver – tourism. As we rebuild our tourism industry, we need to embrace new models of place-based, cultural tourism that respect and protect the aina.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
Tourism should be only one leg of the economic stool supporting Hawaii. With sufficient investment, we could be leaders in informational technologies, suppliers of tropical agriculture, native timber and fisheries. That investment can come in the form of innovative grants.
In agriculture, we need a better marketing network for local perishable foods to reach local markets. We need to support direct sales from farm to consumers and lift petty restrictions held over from plantation-style agriculture. We need to encourage ag-tourism in those counties, like Hawaii County, that have adopted ag-tourism codes. This will require changes to state agricultural law.
We need to focus more attention on STEM in our public schools to develop a populace that is able to perform globally with technologies that could be developed here in Hawaii. Let’s encourage our young people to find solutions to our waste management issues. This can be done through educational grant programs.
Lastly, I will continue to work on redeveloping a commercial boat ramp in my district since our previous one was made inoperative by the 2018 lava flow. Pohoiki previously brought in the second-largest commercial catch in the state and was a major income generator for local families.
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?
Our current plans have not kept apace of the liabilities and do need to be restructured. As an economist, until I have access to real data, I would not wish to give a recommendation on how to improve and would anticipate that addressing this issue would be a committee action such that all reasonable suggestions can be considered.
While the public may not be aware, the level of benefits to public employees in this state have fallen over the last two decades. Attracting talent to civil service positions requires adequate compensation and with wages already lower in Hawaii than for similar positions in other states, these benefits are an important factor in keeping skilled employees and not experiencing high turnover. As for supporting reductions in benefits including pension contributions, this should be used only as a last resort and is not a sustainable practice.
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?
While the above statement does reflect dissension that occurred early in the pandemic response back in March, some of those rifts already appear to have been mended or at least improved. The governor is working more in sync with the Legislature now, although it remains to be seen if that hand holding continues.
One thing that the public often doesn’t understand is that there is a separation of power in our democratic system. Our legislative bodies at the local, state and national levels are largely responsible for enacting laws and policies, plus they have the power of the purse (setting the budget). The administrative branch is in charge of day-to-day operations. I have found as a past elected legislative official, that the public doesn’t realize that the legislative branch of government has limited ways to exert pressure over day to day operations. Having a good relationship between theses two branches is key to smooth administrative operations that reflect the policy guidance established by the legislative. For that reason, fostering good relationships with the administrative branch is critical to being an effective legislator.
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?
While I have the highest respect for law enforcement officers, in general, we have not seen the types of behavior from our law enforcement in Hawaii as has been called out in the recent demonstrations across the country and globally. This doesn’t mean our police cannot improve, but it does mean that we have less issues with systemic racism than other places.
I do believe we need better accountability throughout our law enforcement agencies. In Hawaii County, by charter, there is literally no oversight of our police department’s highest-ranking officers except by the police commission, which is a panel of appointed volunteers. We need a more professional approach to oversight of our law enforcement services. I submitted a measure to the recently convened Charter Commission requesting a change in our charter to create the position of an independent ombudsman to provide an impartial review of misconduct claims. Unfortunately, my submission was not entertained by the Charter Commission. I do support mandatory disclosure of misconduct and adequate funding for law enforcement oversight boards.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I would support a statewide citizens initiative process. We currently have that at the county level and it would be good to have a way to move forward as a state on citizen-sponsored initiatives.
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?
There were many things undertaken during this pandemic response that didn’t make sense simply because of short staffing issues etc., and this is one of those mandates that was a casualty of overreaching to protect public health, while at the same time denying due process.
The state has the technology to provide open meetings across the state. Use that technology. It would clearly be less expensive to invest in technological capabilities than continue to fly interisland for the purpose of attending meetings. This would make the legislative process open to more public involvement.
The access to public records must be qualified to ensure timely access as the public should not be required to wait an indefinite period and/or pay an exorbitant fee to obtain public records.
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?
This is a big priority as the effects of climate change on Hawaii are greater than just sea level rise. Increased tropical depressions and hurricanes will lead to greater flooding issues, which are a real threat in my district. Increased temperatures are a stressor on human, animal and plant populations.
The Ka`u adopted community development plan qualifies a 200-foot setback from the ocean for coastal development. This should be embraced wherever feasible statewide.
Flood maps for the Puna district are outdated. Updating will expose that past speculative development of large substandard land placed thousands of parcels in flood zones without properly denoting these zones. This means many households may not be covered in the event of flooding. These communities have a low socioeconomic status, so it could be devastating for these households to be impacted by flooding. It is critical that new studies be undertaken and new projects be proposed to mitigate this threat that will be exacerbated by climate change.
Growing more food for local consumption, improving access to potable water plentiful in windward Big Island, expanding broadband, and improving the marketing network of agricultural producers will help Hawaii be more resilient in the face of climate change impacts.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Before the economic impacts of COVID-19, my district had hardly begun to recover from the 2018 volcanic event on Kilauea’s Lower East Rift zone that wiped out over 1,000 structures, inundated roads, made agricultural lands inaccessible and made our commercial boat ramp inoperable. While the state made available $60 million for recovery and some additional funds, much of which remains unexpended, most of the federal funds sought have yet to be expended and/or are still in the application process.
Participating in Imua Lower Puna, Malama O Puna, and other community organizations, I have remained active in the lava recovery efforts at the county level; focused on ensuring recovery efforts move forward at a faster pace than we’ve seen to date. In particular, the county’s reluctance to expend FEMA money on fully recovering the network of roads inundated by lava is an impediment to recovery of commercial activities like the Pohoiki boat ramp. While FEMA disaster funding has been approved, the agreement doesn’t stipulate funding be expended in the affected area. Puna has been treated inequitably in the past in terms of expenditures of public dollars, and I will champion spending the allocated state and federal funds in the affected area.
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.
This pandemic demonstrates that we cannot depend entirely on tourism as an economic driver. We need to diversify. This pandemic also highlights what has been talked about for decades – replacing the 90% of our food and energy sources we import with domestic production. The state has set goals in the past, but is not on track to meet those goals. We must now accelerate the timeline for achieving food and energy independence because of climate change impacts.
Funding for education that focuses on STEM and provides skillsets that can be used to develop tech businesses and entrepreneurial activities is needed. Our agricultural technologies are inadequate to compete globally, forcing us to import most of our food. We need to invest in agricultural technologies and pursue greater independence from fossil fuels. Increasing the Grant-in-Aid program and focusing awards on businesses and nonprofits that develop programs and business to achieve these desired outcomes is key. These types of private sector partnerships need to be enhanced and emerging talent invited to participate so that it isn’t business as usual. In so doing we can create jobs that pay a living wage and develop a workforce that will build a better future for Hawaii.