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 Lisa Kitagawa, Democratic candidate for state House District 48, which includes Kaneohe, Kahaluu and Waiahole. The other Democratic candidate is Kau’i Pratt-Aquino.
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?
We are in unprecedented times with the coronavirus pandemic and hindsight is always 20/20. Given the circumstances, the state did the best that it could with this ever-changing pandemic. I believe that the state acted appropriately regarding the health concerns caused by the coronavirus.
Hawaii has had relatively low numbers of positive cases compared to the rest of the nation and we have not experienced the same overwhelming situation as health-care providers in other states. Because the state acted relatively quickly, our health-care system was not overburdened and our hospitals could provide the necessary care required of patients.
I do believe that there are areas where the state could have done and can continue to do better. For example, the state and city and county must improve communication to the public. Over the past three months, the public has been given confusing information regarding the emergency proclamations, rules and updates. It sometimes may have felt as though state and city leaders were not on the same page. This needs to be changed and there should be a unifying, cohesive message, which will help to ensure public trust in government leadership over this situation.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
The state is currently facing at least a billion-dollar shortfall over the next year. In order to balance the budget, it is important to look at current state department budgets that are not being fully utilized, such as those with vacant positions. This may mean not hiring any new state employees until we can balance our budget. The state should also look at departmental accounts and special funds that are not being fully utilized.
I would protect current state workers’ positions and pay, as well as state retirees’ pensions and medical benefits. In addition, social services that support our most vulnerable populations should also be protected and preserved.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
COVID-19 has shown us that we cannot rely solely on tourism as our state’s main economic driver, and reminded us how important it is to diversify our economy. One way to diversify our economy is by focusing on specialty and value-added agricultural products and processes that are specific to Hawaii and/or where Hawaii has a geographic advantage over other states and countries. For example, aquaculture, locally grown coffee and cacao, and horticulture.
It is also important to look at how Hawaii can play a role in expanding renewable energy technology and how we can use our state’s goal of 100% clean energy to grow this sector of our economy.
Continuing to invest in local and small businesses is also important. Currently, the state provides grants, such as the Manufacturing Assistance Grant Program and the Hawaii Small Business Innovation Research Program, that helps companies with startup costs and ultimately grows our economy. We need to continue to support programs like these.
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?
We have made progress on paying for the state’s unfunded liabilities; however, it is important that we do more to ensure that we meet our pension and health obligations for public workers. This includes continuing the dedicated funding to reduce unfunded liabilities and ensuring that benefits for current retirees and future public workers are financially stable.
Pensions and retirement benefits are an agreement between employees and the state, and I am against reducing benefits, even in light of virus-related budget shortfalls.
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?
I believe that transparency in government is important. Both the Legislature and Gov. Ige need to maintain clear and open communication with the public in order to ensure trust in government again.
Since my election into office in 2018, I have made communicating with my community one of my top priorities. I believe it is important that I am accessible, transparent and honest with my constituents. I have done my best to create and maintain open communication by organizing town hall meetings (both in person and now online during the pandemic), regularly attending neighborhood board and community meetings, and participating in community events.
In addition, I also send out weekly email updates and community-wide postcards and newsletters in an effort to keep my constituents informed about our community and state. As their state representative, it is important for me to respond to all constituent inquiries, so that my community knows that I am always ready to listen and ready to respond.
I believe that this type of communication should be commonplace in government, no matter what level of government that you are in.
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?
This is an important issue for Hawaii, as evidenced by the large crowds at recent protests and community gatherings. Racism and discrimination should never be tolerated, and even though Hawaii is known for the aloha spirit, it is important to remember that we are not immune to the types of situations that are going on across the nation and the world.
Our Honolulu Police Department is made up of hard-working and dedicated men and women, and I am grateful for their and their families’ sacrifice and service every day. However, I do believe that police officers, like elected officials, should be held to a higher standard because they are in a position of trust and power.
Because of that, I support police reform efforts, such as mandatory disclosure of misconduct records and adequate funding for law enforcement oversight boards. I believe that the public should be privy to information regarding misconduct and disciplinary action for police officers.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I am open to having discussions about a statewide citizens initiative process, however community members already have the opportunity to draft legislation now by working with their elected officials. The responsibility of an elected official is to represent the views of their constituents. Individuals can already partner with their representative to have their concerns drafted into a bill or resolution.
Over the past two years that I have been in office, I have introduced numerous measures on behalf of my constituents. We have partnered together to draft legislation and to move the bill/resolution through the legislative process. By working together with my community members, we have been successful in passing these measures into law.
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?
It is important that the public has access to government records, since our government’s authority and power come from the people. Under the current pandemic situation, I believe that Gov. Ige did what was necessary considering the situation. COVID-19 created a public health crisis, where information changed constantly and state departments were focused on addressing the immediate needs of the community. The emergency order was necessary for swift and effective decision-making to ensure our community’s safety.
As the situation started to stabilize, Gov. Ige loosened the suspension on open meetings and access to public records. He has now provided guidelines on how the public can participate in meetings and receive access to public records. I believe he is moving in the right direction in restoring Hawaii’s public record law to ensure government transparency and accountability.
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?
Climate change is definitely affecting Hawaii in a negative way. Sea level rise, hotter temperatures, negative effects to animal habitats, such as the reefs, are a result of climate change. We need to look at supporting efforts that decrease our carbon footprint and reduce the effects of climate change by supporting more renewable energy efforts.
Supporting current state efforts, as well as companies that create renewable energy sources, such as through biofuels, and solar and ocean energy, is an important part of reducing our dependence on outside oil sources. It is also important to continue to encourage the public to use renewable energy sources, such as electric vehicles, which will be able to reduce our dependence on outside sources for energy and help to reduce climate change.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
I think the most pressing issues facing my district are the high cost of living, lack of affordable housing and the increase in homelessness. In order to address these issues, I will continue to advocate to reduce the tax burden on our working-class families, push for affordable housing development and legislation that makes homeownership more affordable for our middle-income and working-class families, and support current efforts to reduce homelessness, such as the Kaneohe Joint Outreach Center.
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.
I believe that we need to reinvent the way we think about solutions to chronic problems that we have in our state, and start to focus on community-based solutions instead.
In an effort to address the growing homelessness concerns in my community, I worked with other elected officials and partnered with non-profits and local businesses to create the Kaneohe Joint Outreach Center. This center is a public-private partnership that focuses on providing medical care and social services to those who are homeless or on the verge of homelessness. Unlike other state programs that often take years to create, we were able to create this center in less than four months by effectively collaborating with state and city departments, local businesses, non-profits, unions, and community members. We were able to cut through the bureaucracy and provide a community-based and community-focused initiative.
This collaborative approach can and should be replicated in other communities. We need government to stop doing business as usual and start thinking of innovative ways to solve our own community’s problems.