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 Matt LoPresti, Democratic candidate for state House District 41, which includes Ewa, Ewa Beach, Ewa Gentry, Ewa Villages, Hoakalei and Ocean Pointe. The other Democratic candidates are Mokihana Maldonado and Amanda Rathbun.
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 state has not adequately responded to the crisis. Even when things went well, the communication was confusing and seemed to conflict with the messaging from the counties. There are two main reasons for our low infection numbers: The personal sacrifices of everyday people who complied with stay-at-home orders (thank you!), and our geographic isolation. Were it not for that isolation, our infection rates would still be very high.
We cannot remain closed forever, but we can control how we reopen. Like New Zealand, we should use our geographic isolation to our advantage. We must test anyone before they step foot on an airplane bound for Hawaii, followed by a rigorous track and trace program. I would have implemented such a policy early on. It is unacceptable that we do not yet have this in place. We cannot properly plan, much less govern with poor data.
I would have encouraged the use of empty hotels to temporarily assist those living on the streets and better coordinated the messaging of state and local government. This final failure caused much confusion and consternation amongst the public and failed to inspire confidence that our leaders knew what they were doing.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
Maintaining a budget during at a time like this requires the wisdom to know what we can do without and the forethought to avoid pennywise but pound-foolish temptations.
Many of our state workers are already undercompensated. Perpetually poor compensation for educational professionals, for example, has resulted in thousands of unfilled education positions by highly qualified professionals and the nation’s worst teacher turnover rate. It would be foolish to compound this already critical problem, so I would protect their salaries and pensions. Many such workers and their families have still not recovered from the last time the state tried to balance the budget on their backs in 2008.
I would implement a hiring freeze, eliminate vacant positions, find efficiencies as suggested by ongoing performance audits, look to repeal certain GET exemptions, consider an income tax increase on the top 5% and impose a 20% salary reduction for appointed and elected officials while also holding off on their scheduled pay raises. Lastly, this crisis will not last forever and the state can borrow what it must to fulfill the state’s vital functions.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
Pursue major infrastructure projects by leveraging state lands along the rail route for genuinely affordable housing projects. With three growing seasons, focus on producing local food for local consumption. Hawaii should be a leader in developing clean renewable energy technology. Hawaii has genuine potential for growth in the development and implementation of emerging aerospace industries. With these last two, our children can have the choice of high-paying professional carriers right here at home.
Attract higher-paying tourists (not just focus on raw numbers) and find ways to make the tourism industry work for the working people by keeping more of enormous profits generated by our state’s largest industry in our state.
Lastly, we must protect fragile but successful areas of our economy. Failure to implement a plan to bring back the thousands of higher-paying international and mainland students who enroll in Hawaii’s universities will result in a catastrophic collapse of our state’s institutions of higher education. Not only do local universities provide a substantial contribution to the diversification of our state’s economy, they are essential to the development of an educated local workforce necessary to any economic diversification. Without maintaining strong local universities any discussion about economic diversification is just talk.
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?
The state has actually been making progress toward paying down this debt. It would not be fair to renege on promises made to government employees. The fault is not theirs but the politicians who made those commitments without adequately paying for them decades ago.
Those politicians reaped the political rewards of over-promising resources they never planned to provide, but you and I and our children now have to pay for their short-sightedness. These sorts of generational injustices are building up in many ways and it is very distressing to myself, to my generation, and to the generation I work and learn with every day as a professor. We need leaders who see the grand scope and consequences our decisions have for the generations who come after us; we have a moral obligation to leave them a better world and I will always do what I can to help make it so.
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?
Transparency is key to accountability. If they are required to hold their decision making and hearings in public, they are more likely to behave themselves and overcome petty differences and personal agendas, focusing instead on the public good.
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?
Every person deserves equal protection and representation before the law. As a country we have failed to live up this ideal and people are right to be upset and to demand justice. I cannot claim to know what it is like, as I am not a person of color, but I can listen and work to empower others.
In Hawaii, Native Hawaiians, for example, are overrepresented in our prison populations and they are more likely to be arrested and incarcerated. We need to take a hard look at the policing of these communities and why they are more likely to face harsher penalties than others who commit the same offenses.
As vice-chair of the Public Safety Committee I supported (and still support) the development of police standards boards. They must be fully funded. Police disciplinary record disclosure can help transparency and accountability and I have supported and introduced legislation requiring body cameras.
I authored and passed a resolution to further implement the use of hooponopono (a Native Hawaiian form of conflict resolution) for non-violent offenses. I believe that indigenous wisdom and methods can help victims and communities heal and overcome the root sources of crime.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
While I am a strong supporter of “people-driven” political action, as a matter of standing permanent policy, I am honestly of two minds on this issue. On the one hand, I support the idea in principle but, ultimately such a process is a sword that cuts both ways and the dangers of dark money hijacking this process are well-documented. It is for this reason that I would err on the side of not supporting a statewide initiative process at this time.
The amount of dark money that flows in from other places to influence local issues via referendum process in other states deeply troubles me. This otherwise seemingly wholesome process of citizen engagement could easily become co-opted by dark money forces outside of our state with their own private agendas. Once we can more adequately shine light on money in politics, we could more reasonably consider a referendum process. There is a lot of work to be done before we get there.
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?
No, I do not agree with the governor’s suspension of open government laws and see no justification for his having done so. We should remove barriers, not impose them.
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?
Protecting the environment is a driving personal and public concern for me. My service on our local Sierra Club’s Executive Board helped inspire me to run for the state legislature. Our family has transitioned to solar power and an electric vehicle. Despite their upfront costs, these choices were made for both ethical and economically sound reasons. We should make it easier for people to make environmentally sustainable choices. Carbon taxes are generally agreed upon by experts as one of the best ways to discourage fossil fuel use. Moreover, Hawaii could lead the way with a cap and trade market, utilizing our abundant natural resources as an enormous economic boon as carbon sinks on the international market.
High-density housing is increasing in areas we know for a fact will be underwater in just a few decades. It would be madness to not begin having the necessary, but uncomfortable conversations about which areas, if any, we are going to try to save by hardening shorelines or building seawalls, and which areas we will allow to naturally erode. Climate change is already here, and we need to codify the foundations for managed retreat now.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The themes on which I will focus my efforts are four-fold.
• Supporting our keiki and our public schools is first. Despite our great success in getting air conditioning in Ewa schools and new buildings to deal with overcrowding, our schools are still over-capacity, rundown, and we’ve needed a second high school for decades. Physical buildings need major renovations, the athletics complex needs to be redone, our teachers need pay increases, and our Title IX obligations to our girls requires serious and immediate attention.
• Traffic mitigation is also paramount. Completing rail, PM contraflow lanes on Fort Weaver Road, staggered work times, telecommuting, and moving state and county office jobs to the long designated, but never built office buildings in Kapolei would help.
We also need more attention to:
• Caring for our kupuna.
• The overall cost of living. This means raising the minimum wage, requiring paid sick leave and paid family leave, as well as accounting for the millions in unpaid caregiving provided by family to family in our state.
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.
While I appreciate the idea of painting pretty pictures of a completely reinvented Hawaii, as a lawmaker I prefer to look real problems straight in the face and find practical solutions inspired by shared values. The values themselves are best expressed by poets and philosophers at greater length and in other venues, to which I am happily open.
This economic crisis is the perfect time to leverage public land along the rail corridor for genuinely affordable housing. Altering the patterns of development is largely what the rail system is supposed to bring about, so let’s stop talking about transit-oriented development and start doing it by investing in large workforce housing projects on state land.
The state can provide infrastructure costs to help developers reach real affordable housing needs. Alternatively, we could ourselves finance projects directly – so long as they serve an immediate public good, like designated teacher housing. High- and medium-density housing projects for urban infill face enormous financial burdens because of increased upfront costs and risk, so the state should itself look to provide low-cost loans for low-priced housing. This is the time when large public works programs can do the most good.
Let’s do it.