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 Kau’i Pratt-Aquino, Democratic candidate for state House District 48, which includes Kaneohe, Kahaluu and Waiahole. The other Democratic candidate is Lisa Kitagawa.
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?
What is most positive and inspiring about the pandemic response has been how the vast majority of residents have taken to the shelter-in-place and social distancing orders. I see that response as one that reflects the values of our closely knit island culture. It is a testament to our respect and aloha for one another.
We have also seen residents emerge to help meet the most basic needs of others. It has been inspiring to witness the unity of our community to take care of one another despite not having resources for themselves.
Otherwise, I have been disappointed by our elected leaders in their effort to address the economic crisis in a timely manner. Years of underfunding departments like the Department of Labor & Industrial Relations have come home to roost. It was frustrating to learn the computer system is from the ’80s. Today there remain unemployed people who are waiting for their UI claims to be processed, for their checks to arrive. UI claims should have been provisionally approved on spec at the outset, allowing for review after the worst of the crisis passed. Unacceptable.
While the House Special Committee began meeting relatively early, the focus was entirely on protecting the tourist and related industries. Workers of this industry must be prioritized to ensure they have a stable income to provide for themselves and their families. But safety should be the top priority when looking at this industry to ensure these workers are protected first.
Additionally, no apparent concern was given to the plight of “essential workers” or the expected deluge of unemployment claims that has since buried the DLIR. We are now in month four and the unemployment system is still not fixed.
Caution with respect to CARES Act funds has taken priority over swift action. Community leaders and organizations filled the gap where our government failed to help vulnerable families make it through the crisis from the onset. My hope is that our government would be more responsive to a crisis like the pandemic.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
Workers and essential government responsibilities should be protected first. We should not cut worker wages or benefits. Those departments and programs that work to benefit Hawaii and its residents need to be preserved.
The Legislature should look to end subsidies for tourism. Tax credits in support of tourism, whether it be hotels, “local” airlines, etc. should be immediately ended. Hawaii has low cases now. We must do what we can to protect our residents first. This means tight restrictions and screenings for incoming travelers.
Additionally, any and all funds appropriated for marketing Hawaii to the world should be zeroed out and returned to the general fund. The primary focus should be the residents of Hawaii first.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen
We have an opportunity to reshape our state budget in a way that benefits working people. Tax credits are often given to the wealthy and corporate entities that generate off-shore profits, while the food-excise and renters tax credits, and a refundable EITC have repeatedly been called “too expensive.” Hawaii has become a tax shelter for the wealthy.
We must realign our priorities to put people and workers first. We must find creative ways to increase revenue to the state while protecting the most economically disadvantaged among us.
We need a far larger effort to more quickly expand local food production. And we need to better support our local farmers to incentivize food production. There should be no reason why we are not producing our own food now. The pandemic showed us how dependent we are on imports. The answers to food security are here in Hawaii. We must leverage those resources and people to truly move toward a sustainable future for this generation and beyond.
As military leases are coming up for renewal, we must insist that those leases of public land are paid at rates far higher than the couple of dollars they are leased for now.
We must increase wages when the time is appropriate. But, at minimum, due to the pandemic, our leaders must do what they can not to cut the wages and benefits of our workers. We have big challenges ahead that require strong and community-based leadership to truly represent the voices of our community. Our first priority should always be the health and well-being of residents. This includes providing plans to safely open up our economy and to stabilize our workforce.
Wages for our “essential” minimum wage workers, for teachers, for state workers should be increased once we have a viable plan to move forward. When people have more money in their pockets our entire local economy benefits. And higher salaries for teachers and state workers will attract more people to work in essential positions.
We must also move away from our reliance on tourism to power our local economy. Not only does the industry create a number of negative impacts to our economy and ecosystem, but we have seen what happens when the tourists stop coming.
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?
There should be no reduction in health or retirement benefits. Until the crisis, the state had been making large investments to shrink the unfunded liability. In the short term, those payments should be either significantly decreased, or halted altogether until the situation improves.
But the budget shortfall must not be filled on the backs of state employees, the vast majority of whom already struggle just to get by.
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?
For starters, I would be more open with sharing of information. We have heard stories about a power struggle between the Legislature and the administration with regard to information sharing; each trying to guard against the other and control information and power.
In times of crisis, though really at all times, the focus needs to be on doing the work of the people. The Capitol can indeed be a high-pressure environment, but our leaders must guard themselves against decision-making based on interpersonal and intergovernmental squabbles.
If I am elected, I will continue to be rooted in my community, and will work to ensure my constituents’ concerns are represented and they know what is happening at the Capitol and halls of government. By keeping those roots strong, I will have a constant reminder of the commitment I’ve made to my community and to the people of Hawaii to look out for their interests, our common interests. Not the interests of the moneyed and powerful.
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?
Though the principles of aloha permeate our island culture, our home is not free of violence, racism, or institutional bias. To be very clear, racism in Hawaii is not always between white and colored people. We must institute reforms that bring transparency to our criminal justice system. This includes abolishing cash bail, dramatic reforms to criminal asset forfeiture, and increased transparency and collaboration between law enforcement and our leaders. All judges, elected officials, prosecutors, public defenders and law enforcement should be required to go through annual “implicit bias” training.
We also need to look to our local police for leadership and guidance for practices that can be replicated in other communities. In District 48 specifically, the police are well respected and trusted. They are invested in our community meaning they live and have raised their families in the district.
They also institute community-based policing in a culturally appropriate way to ensure public safety. We need to honor those practices in supporting them and our community.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Often the call for these types of mechanisms are preceded by complaints about a legislative or political structure that largely ignores the desires of the public. So, out of frustration, the public wants a mechanism to circumvent the legislative process. While I share this frustration — it is in fact one of the reasons I have chosen to run for elected office — I would be very reticent to move toward a ballot initiative option.
Citizen initiatives or ballot initiatives are not themselves inherently bad, but I fear they could be used to impose majority values on minorities. The will of the majority allowed for institutionalized racism in America for decades, opposed interracial marriage, same-sex marriage, etc. A position isn’t morally correct simply because the majority holds it.
Any establishment of statewide ballot initiatives must be carefully considered and given very narrow margins within which it operates.
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?
While I disagree with this decision, I understand the governor has limited staff and resources, as do so many of the departments. I’m not sure given the current crisis time our resources should be prioritized for tediously scouring state records to respond to public requests.
One of the things we need to take a hard look at is recent government spending levels. Nearly every department, every office, is understaffed. I believe strongly in the public’s right to access information and have a transparent government. But when so many departments can barely meet the missions for which they were established, priorities must be set.
By providing departments what they need to properly function, we can also create the space for those departments to have staff and resources available to respond to public requests for information.
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?
We need to be investing more in mitigating impacts on infrastructure: buildings, roads, sewers, etc. In this vein we must also move more quickly to increase our local food production. Food security should be a top priority for our state.
New development projects should consider sea-level rise; no new developments should be built in areas where land may be inundated. We need shoreline setbacks. We should also avoid instincts to “harden” our shorelines with seawalls and the like.
Additionally, we should be doing more to combat climate change: moving more quickly toward renewable and clean energy goals, creating incentives to purchase electric vehicles, and utilizing mass transit options.
While all this is critically important, we must be careful not to disproportionately disadvantage those at the bottom of the income scale. Things like fuel taxes and tax credits for photovoltaic systems tend to more immediately benefit those who are more economically comfortable, or create additional hardship for those already struggling to survive financially. Any steps toward addressing climate change need to take this into consideration. We must engage in discussions to create community-specific plans to develop viable steps to address climate change.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
As it is in so many districts around the state, cost of living is a serious issue in Kaneohe. Our district’s homeless population is on the rise and families are fleeing the district (and the state) because they can simply no longer afford to live here. According to Zillow, the median rent in Kaneohe is $2,500. It is just too difficult to survive in Hawaii. Kaneohe is also home to countless small businesses whose owners and employees are struggling to make ends meet.
They are operating at 25% to 50% capacity due to COVID-19. A second wave of restrictions could cause these small businesses to close permanently. We need to find a way to make it easier for small businesses to succeed, while also ensuring workers are paid a living wage.
Now with the pandemic, we need to make sure our Kupuna are well. We need ensure their basic needs are met. We need to provide safe spaces for them to congregate and socialize to ensure they live with dignity (and not locked up in their homes). We can be creative but their health and well-being must be a priority. We just need to commit to a plan that values and honors them.
The cost of child care is also a serious problem. On average, $7,800 per year per child. How can we expect families to survive, let alone thrive under those conditions? If I am elected, I will work hard in support of our families, kupuna, a living wage, for paid family leave, paid sick leave, affordable housing and access to child car
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.
We need to overhaul our state budget. We need to diversify our economy now.
At a time when our island state is facing numerous threats, from the current COVID-19 pandemic, to ever-increasing cost of living, to an exodus of local people to the mainland, to climate change, to crumbling infrastructure, our home is in peril.
We must take a comprehensive look at the budget, put everything on the table. Then we must recraft a budget that prioritizes workers, kupuna, keiki, etc. Right now we have a budget that benefits business interests with the notion that trickle-down economics will elevate working people. An abundance of data and experience show us that doesn’t work.
By retooling our state budget, by trimming unnecessary corporate tax credits and loopholes, by finding needed additional revenue, we can rebuild a budget and state government that is responsive to the needs of real people, not profits and corporate kickbacks. Robust structures that are responsive to crises, can attract talent from around the world, and can rebuild a crumbling infrastructure.
In these uncertain times, it is important we restore faith in government by reprioritizing its focus to the needs of working people in Hawaii.