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 Michael Chapman, Democratic candidate for state House District 45, which includes Schofield, Mokuleia, Waialua, Kunia, Waipio Acres and Mililani.
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?
Above all, the crisis has exposed pre-existing deficiencies in our state, from obsolete information technology to underinvestment in our health system and economic dependence on tourism. Months in, workers await unemployment payments; doctors and nurses lack basic personal protective equipment; parents are without preschool and childcare options as they seek to return to work.
With the collective effort of community organizations, residents, businesses and state leaders, we have managed to flatten the curve at this point. For this, credit is certainly deserved. However, the state’s response could have been better. In times of crisis, consistent communication is paramount. We cannot have conflicting guidance from government officials. Decisions must result from open dialogue between government leaders and the public. Teachers, small business owners, workers, and community organizations should all contribute to our crisis management plans.
I would have laid out a decisive reopening timeline once the curve had flattened. Businesses were given little notice to prepare to resume operations, then the reopening phases were clustered so closely together that it was difficult to isolate the effects of each phase. I would have outlined a clear schedule and spaced out the phases in order to ensure a safe reopening.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
I would protect funding for education, health, and human services. Rather than cutting the budgets of our schools, universities and social services, I would focus on areas where we are already overspending. For example, appropriating $87 million to the Hawaii Tourism Authority is counterproductive when we desperately need to reduce our reliance on tourism.
We can raise hundreds of millions of dollars through smarter taxation. The federal government recently slashed corporate taxes and income taxes for the top one percent of earners. We should capture these revenues by raising corporate taxes and establishing new tax brackets for those who earn more than $350,000 per year. Additionally, taxing real estate investment trusts will keep tens of millions of dollars in the state each year.
This approach will close the budget shortfall, and will do so by focusing on those facing the lowest risk of financial hardship. This will enable us to replace regressive taxes, such as our grocery tax, which is the fifth-highest in the nation. If we want to raise revenues, we need to catalyze economic churn. Therefore, we must prioritize the creation of disposable income for working families, so that they can fuel our economy.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
Our state is uniquely situated to take advantage of technology and innovation partnerships in the Asia-Pacific Region. Hawaii’s convenient location has attracted tourism, government and military industries – three of the state’s main economic drivers – for decades. However, there is a clear need to diversify. We sit between technology hubs like Washington, California, Japan, South Korea and Singapore, which host most of the world’s top-10 technology companies. We should develop career pipelines in cybersecurity, engineering, and other technology careers to prepare our students for high-paying STEM jobs.
Supporting our agriculture industry will boost our food security and circulate money within our state. We should source all public schools, hospitals and correctional facilities with local produce. We should promote value-added production by helping local producers to scale up their operations and pursue direct-to-consumer sales opportunities.
Finally, we should capitalize on the vast potential offered by our film industry. As an actor who has worked on several local productions, I have witnessed the wide diversity of labor involved in the industry. Each production requires hundreds of employees, from truck drivers and hairstylists to accountants and caterers. We should strengthen our production workforce and ensure that any project filming here uses local workers.
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 do not support pension cuts for public employees. Pension and health benefits are two of the main reasons that public workers choose to forgo the private sector’s higher salaries. We need to make sure that we remain competitive with the private sector on the labor market so that we can recruit qualified and capable staff for our state agencies. The state needs to protect its employees and retirees.
The issue of unfunded liabilities has loomed over the Legislature for years. The state has taken steps to reduce cost overruns, such as by reigning in the potential for overtime wages to spike pension payments. I believe that we have started moving in the right direction. However, it is unclear how COVID-19 will affect the immediate situation and dictate our optimal response.
Regardless, we are in dire need of additional revenue-raising mechanisms. This is the only way that we can surely fulfill our obligations to our public employees while protecting our current and future taxpayers.
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?
Communication and transparency will alleviate any issues that such rifts might cause. Ideological conflict, on its own, is not a bad thing. Often, it is necessary to pit different perspectives against one another in order to achieve the best solution. However, these tensions can become problematic when they inhibit our government’s ability to deliver on its duties.
Transparency is crucial. We need to keep the people of Hawaii engaged in all stages of government planning so that the public interest transcends all else. This means that decisions cannot happen out of the public eye or without input from our residents. Responsible journalism is instrumental in achieving this goal, both by delivering information to the public and by providing a forum for varying perspectives to compete. Maintaining transparency and communication will ensure that the government works for the people. When the government does this, public confidence will follow.
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?
We need to address discrimination issues – both acute and systemic. According to the Sentencing Project, Hawaii’s black incarceration rate doubles its white incarceration rate. Although this is better than many states, it is wholly unacceptable. National studies have demonstrated racial disparities across the board, from police shootings of unarmed victims to sentencing. Although Hawaii is unique in its cultural diversity, we are not immune from these problems.
Look no further than the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on Native Hawaiians. A 2010 OHA report found that Native Hawaiians are overrepresented in every phase of our criminal justice system, including arrests, pretrial detention, probation, imprisonment and parole. White defendants are just two-thirds as likely as Native Hawaiian defendants to receive prison time when convicted of the same crime. These disparities are especially problematic when combined with our incarceration rate, which is remarkably high on a global scale. In 2019, the HCR 85 Task Force on Prison Reform reported that if we were a country, we would be a top-twenty incarcerator in the world.
I strongly support police reform, including misconduct disclosures and oversight boards. That is the bare minimum. We also need to highlight and resolve these macro-level issues.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Yes, but only if it comes with campaign finance reform. Citizens initiatives aim to empower voters. However, across the country, we have seen corporations and industry interests leverage their power to distort these processes. These groups have the resources needed to obtain signatures and lobby for their viewpoints – resources that regular people lack. This often involves oversimplifying complex issues in order to deceive voters. I fear that an initiative process, without campaign finance reform, would move us closer toward a reality where money writes laws – when we need to move in the opposite direction.
Voters should have checks on the Legislature. This starts with increased electoral accountability. We elect representatives because most people – with their jobs, families and other responsibilities – do not have enough time to dig into every matter that comes before the Legislature. When we elect someone, we entrust them with the responsibility to represent us on the issues – to analyze the details of complex policy proposals and make smart decisions. As voters, we need to keep an eye on our elected officials. If we are unhappy with the direction of our state, then we need to create change at the ballot box.
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 do not support the decision to suspend open government laws. We cannot shut the public out of decision-making during emergencies – not when their jobs, health, financial well-being and safety are on the line. I understand that this seemed necessary in the short-term, given technological constraints and social distancing requirements. However, this necessity speaks to underlying problems in public engagement.
Going forward, all legislative hearings and public meetings need to be live-streamed, and must accept remote testimony. Working in the Legislature last year, I constantly spoke with people who were frustrated by the state’s deficiencies in this area. People take time off from work, fly over from the neighbor islands, and travel to the State Capitol to testify on a single bill – just for it to be deferred to another date. In the 21st century, there is no reason for us to erect these barriers to public participation. By improving our public communications, we can eliminate any need for these types of actions in the future.
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?
It is imperative that we mitigate and adapt to the effects of climate change. Even if climate change is not your No. 1 priority, it will affect your No. 1 priority for decades to come. As beaches disappear, economic activity in coastal areas will diminish. As climate patterns become less predictable, the agriculture industry will take on new risks. As our reefs are destroyed, marine ecosystems will be destabilized.
We need to start planning ahead. There will come a time when we need to decide whether to protect buildings, cultural sites or natural areas near our coasts or to allow our beaches to overtake them. We need to establish a protocol for making these tough decisions, while discouraging additional development near our shorelines in the interim.
In order to reduce emissions, we should create career pipelines in renewable energy technology, research, and development. This will ensure that as our renewable energy sector grows, we fill the associated STEM jobs with our own residents. We can also cut emissions by boosting energy efficiency initiatives, modernizing our utility infrastructure, and maximizing the grid benefits of electric vehicles.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
When speaking with my neighbors about their concerns, the cost of living is the connecting thread between them. Their children move to the mainland to avoid high rents. They are unable to purchase homes because their paychecks go toward bills and debts instead of toward down payment savings. They close their businesses as commercial rents engulf them. They defer starting a family because the cost of childcare is prohibitive.
The cost of living requires a multi-pronged solution. We need to significantly increase our inventory of high-density, affordable housing, concentrated in the urban core. We need to cut regressive taxes on groceries and hygiene products. We need to boost childcare subsidies, achieve universal preschool, and eliminate college tuition barriers for residents. We need to lower the costs of health insurance and allow for prescription drug reimportation.
We can do all of this without inundating our working people in taxes. To raise money, we should focus on untapped revenue sources, such as reasonable taxes on real estate investment trusts, luxury investment properties, and individual earnings over $350,000. We should also look to cut wasteful spending and redundancies. We can reduce the cost of living with bold, collective action and a people-first mindset.
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.
Leaders are often overwhelmed with so many short-term issues that they struggle to step back and evaluate the big picture. Our government is responsible for facilitating long-term success – imagining a better future and charting our path to get there. We need to consciously and deliberately orient ourselves toward the long term in order to avoid becoming myopic.
It is time to unlock the potential of our education system. While other investments may have higher immediate returns, a well-nurtured education system will pay off for decades to come. The cost of providing a wholesome education is negligible compared to the benefits of a stronger workforce, smarter population, and more vibrant society.
In addition to expanding education access – such as through tuition-free community colleges and universal preschool – we need to align our education system with our economic planning. We should form a state body, or designate an existing one, to identify future workforce needs, then create curriculums and workforce pipelines to fit those needs. This would help us to form partnerships with local and global industry leaders to turn diplomas into high-paying jobs in cybersecurity, engineering, renewable energy technology and other careers of the future.