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 Les Ihara, Democratic candidate for State Senate District 10, which includes Kaimuki, Kapahulu, Palolo, Maunalani Heights, St. Louis Heights, Moiliili and Ala Wai. The other Democratic candidates are Jesus Arriola and Vicki Higgins.
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?
I believe state leaders have been properly focused on health science, using COVID-19 case numbers to address the pandemic, with appropriate concern for the impact of limiting personal and commercial freedoms by government closures of social and business activities. I believe the planning and timing of the governor’s March 23 stay-at-home order was effective, starting the same day the first community-spread infection was reported.
This COVID-19 pandemic has left many people disturbed, frustrated and fearful of the future, because COVID power-point presentations raised more questions than answers. I believe what’s missing is the story of who we as a COVID-community, a story of what this crisis means to Hawaii. COVID-19 is leading each of us to find new personal balance points on masks and social distancing. Weʻre learning to balance the interests of individuals and community, and between money and health. As acceptance of COVID social norms widen and deepen, behavioral protocols should smooth the curve and allow sustained public activity. I believe Hawaii’s COVID experience will be useful to help us generate a consensus for a strategy and pathway into the future, a future scenario. To me, COVID-19 means our community is learning how to create a collective future.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
The Legislature and governor are fiscally responsible for operating the state within a balanced budget, which the governor submits to the Legislature each December. I concur with the premise that, at some future point, the coronavirus threat will reach the acceptable level of the common flu, with economic activity and tax revenues returning to about pre-COVID levels. But we don’t really know. It’s possible the COVID-19 pandemic could cause so much debt that global financial restructuring may be needed. Before November, I believe the President will ask his Senate allies to agree to another funding bill to bail out state budgets, especially for red states.
Should Congress pass a major state bailout funding bill, I believe Hawaii’s legislature will reconvene in special session to appropriate federal COVID funds and plug the budget gap. With or without congressional action, when the Legislature is not in session, the governor has the tools to reduce expenditures to meet balanced budget requirements, in addition to emergency powers provided through proclamations. But if the budget shortfall requires major policy changes or cuts to public services, I believe the Legislature should weigh in and approve. Even during this election campaign period.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
The New Economy Caucus of 2000 successfully proposed 22 bills to connect state department teams in a common vision for Hawaii’s future, that of a knowledge-based economy. Legislation included bills related to education grants, technology scholarships, college credits for high schoolers, technology tax credits, enterprise zones, capital access program, new economy public policy, high technology development corporation, access Hawaii committee, board meetings by videoconference, legal validity of electronic signatures and records, civil service reform and workforce development.
After 20 wayward years of fits and starts, 2020 may be a moment of collective awakening about our future. For next year, I’m proposing statewide community conversations based on guiding principles of the aina aloha economic futures declaration. In civic settings where people can trust their safety with others, they share aspirations for the community. I envision participants generating community consensus on a particular economic future for Hawaii, and working together on a long-term project to build infrastructure for the future. This would be a major feat. My preferred future is a knowledge-based economy in which Hawaii residents are the human capital that services the world’s knowledge-related needs.
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?
Yes, before COVID-19; because the plan to reduce unfunded liabilities required increased employer and employee contributions. Also required are annual reviews, called stress tests, of economic projections and investment returns to assess and possibly update the plans.
I would not consider changing employee contributions up or down until we get a better grasp on the size of the budget shortfall and level of additional federal funds, if any.
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 Hawai‘i’s government officials and top executives?
My experience of the governor, speaker and Senate president is that they’ve managed to get to a place of having respectful “agree to disagree” relationships with each other, and with leaders in other sectors of the community. From my angle, I see three guys attempting to run a six-legged race maybe for the first time. But stumbling and clumsy elbows at the start help turn disagree points into common ground, so history shows. In January the leaders and chamber majorities agreed to an historic legislative package to provide relief to residents struggling to make ends meet. Speaker Saiki has shown collaboration in his multi-sector COVID committee. And though a frustrated Senate COVID committee demanded immediate action by the governor, he accepted and took most of the recommendations, albeit at the 11th hour.
Given my first-hand assessment, I believe it’s possible to consider building a community-based collaborative effort next year to generate statewide consensus on a chosen future. In this moment in history, I believe our state leaders have sufficient collaborative spirit and skill-building ability to facilitate civic leaders across the sectors, including government philanthropy, nonprofit, and other civic-related sectors – to chart a path past COVID-19 – and into the future.
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 Hawai‘i? 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 the systemic racism term may not apply exactly to our multicultural Hawaii, I believe the traditional role of law enforcement needs major reform. County police should be keepers of the peace, and should enforce the law without hostility toward citizens, especially to those who exercise free speech rights through protests, even nonviolent civil disobedience.
I believe social workers, or similarly trained personnel, should be on teams that respond to 911 calls that have no public safety or enforcement concerns. Rather than police officers dealing with troubled, non-violent persons, I believe social-support professionals would be more immediately effective, and more responsible in minimizing future public costs. I have long supported removing the county police exemption to the state’s open records law, which shields misconduct records from public disclosure.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I opposed the California-type Prop-13 tax revolt initiative coming to Hawaii in 1978, and as a constitutional convention delegate voted against a statewide citizens initiative proposal. As a House member, I supported expanding county authority to enact land use and zoning laws by citizen initiative. As senator, I supported voter-owned elections initiatives, and legislation to make big-money coalitions more transparent while attempting to sway public elections. I oppose amending the constitution to allow statewide citizens initiative, because I believe ballot issues would be unduly influenced by big-money coalitions, as seen on the mainland.
I believe the underlying issue is conflict between representative form of democracy – versus a citizen-centered deliberative democracy. Citizens want legislators guided by civic interests, rather than political concerns, and they both yearn for authentic relationships with each other. I have for many years facilitated a joint project between the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) and Kettering Foundation to support legislators interested in collaborative policy-making. We’ve developed an inventory of citizen engagement practices conducted by legislators around the country. I am currently developing a civic fellows program for state legislators, to start next year, in partnership with NCSL and the Collaborative State Legislators Network.
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 agree with the governor’s revised emergency proclamations (#7, 8, 9) that add back requirements to the state’s Sunshine and open records laws. The proclamations allow boards to conduct virtual online meetings during the pandemic, and some boards and legislative committees have done so. The virtual meetings allow members to participate online and provide the public online access the meetings, but limit testimony to written only. While closed caption issues remain, I hope boards and legislative committees will expand live online and on-demand access to hearings after the pandemic passes. Public record requests not requiring redactions or review must be disclosed by the agency without substantial delay; and agencies are required to prioritize requests for records that may be widely distributed, e.g. by media organizations.
The focus now is on the pandemic, and emergency measures presume only civic purposes, excluding private, commercial and other non-civic interests. Record-keeping of emergency actions taken during the crisis continue, and I will partner with good government groups to address citizen complaints, as well as promote online access to government meetings.
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?
In Hawaii, climate change is a settled policy issue. We’re past the debate, and on to finding sustainable solutions that affect us directly. We’re studying, planning and starting to take deliberate actions, such as banning sunscreen harmful to coral reefs, stopping new sea wall construction and coastal hardenings, and ending coal burning power plants. I believe COVID-19 brings with it the opportunity for a civics lesson to awaken the community to the dangers of climate change, which are as invisible as coronavirus.
The COVID-19 reality is that, to contain the virus – priority must be on those most vulnerable. However, we live in a Darwinian “survival of the fittest” world of social, economic and political systems in which the strong compete with, rather than support, the weak. I believe that people in power, who push truths to justify or coerce their power, have now competition from civic truth-tellers who trust science and the truth about the rise of a caring community. I believe that Hawaii’s story can awaken humanity to itself, as it finds in our narrative a personal and social experience that activates forgotten, yet familiar, aspirations that seem possible now in the new normal after COVID-19.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Since statehood, Senate District 10 residents have been among the oldest in the islands, and thus, my top district priority is long-term care for senior citizens. As our elderly become frail and need assistance with daily activities, Adult and Disability Resource Centers make referrals for services such as meal preparation, chore services, transportation, medication and financial management, and caregiver respite.
Since 2006, the legislator-led Kupuna Caucus has facilitated a network of aging-related agencies, advocates, nonprofits, and service providers to help pass legislation on senior citizen issues. The Kupuna Caucus successfully proposed legislation to conduct a family caregiver needs assessment, fund county Kupuna Care safety net programs, and create a Long Term Care Commission. The Legislature also authorized a special legislative committee on aging in place that I co-chaired. If re-elected, I will continue to serve as a Kupuna Caucus co-convener.
11. The coronavirus pandemic has exposed numerous flaws in Hawai‘i’s structure and systems, from outdated technology to economic disparity. If you could take this moment to reinvent Hawai‘i, 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 Hawai‘i. Be innovative, but be specific.
I believe COVID-19 can teach us lessons and new truths to reinvent Hawaii. Political and economic systems tend to favor the rich and powerful, while leaving minority communities vulnerable and without reliable support to survive the virus. I believe our institutions are doing the best they can with the perspective and experience they have, which often differ from communities they seek to serve. I believe the ALICE report on Hawaii’s financially stressed population should serve as a civic North Star for innovative community projects to help reshape our institutions to welcome sustainable solutions.
For reopening the economy, I propose that Hawaii invite the people of the world to travel and see new peoples and places, for a particular purpose – to discover the humanity in each of us, and the beauty everywhere in the world. I believe Hawaii should promote tourism as a worldwide cultural movement for global citizenship and civic education. I propose building a network of Hawaii residents and expatriates, an ohana network, to encourage lifelong relationships with non-residents to help promote global citizenship, and save Hawaii from the ravages of climate change.