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 Paul Shiraishi, nonpartisan candidate for State Senate District 10, which includes Kaimuki, Kapahulu, Palolo, Maunalani Heights, St. Louis Heights, Moiliili and Ala Wai.
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?
No, I don’t believe the initial response was effective. One of the biggest frustrations with our state’s response (not unsimilar to the federal response) was its lack of speed and consistency. Some current officials will say their response was effective given the low number of cases and deaths, but I’m confident time and research will show that other factors such as our weather and prevalence of outdoor spaces mitigated rapid spread.
I would have appropriated a significant portion of the federal COVID funds, by now, to small businesses and low-income residents to help pay their rents, mortgages and leases. I would have recognized the low risk outdoor spaces pose for transmission and used that to guide certain businesses to open up sooner. I also would have pressed the Department of Health to divert internal resources to COVID faster and pressed the Department of Labor to act with more urgency in the face of the severe economic impacts that faced our residents.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
Whatever problems we had before COVID, such as homelessness and population decline, our budget shortfall will exacerbate those problems. I would reallocate funds that have traditionally relieved the “symptoms” of those problems and divert them to the core services that prevent these problems from becoming systemic. For example, whatever government funds we use to curb the effects of homelessness, we risk sentencing a new wave of citizens to that reality if we do not keep our core responsibilities and public services funded: social services, schools, fire/EMS, infrastructure, etc.
If government employees’ salaries must be cut, then legislator salaries should also be cut at a similar rate. If elected, I would reduce my own salary at a rate even more than the largest employee salary cut.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
Traditional 20th century thinking has taught us that business firms require tangible assets and tangible outputs to exist. In the 21st century, intangible assets make up more than 80% of the market value of the S&P 500. Ideas and innovation are the world’s new capital. We sit at the greatest crossroads between the two largest economic regions in the world (Asia-Pacific and North America). Yet, most of the digital economy lies in places like China and California.
We can diversify our economy to grow knowledge-based industries (that don’t put a strain on our natural resources) such as technology and internet services. Investing in our local talent through training programs, re-skilling programs and education incentives can help build the workforce that is desired and needed by these types of employers and help keep more of our young, high potential residents from leaving to the mainland. We need to take the circumstances that we have long been told were weaknesses and turn them into strengths.
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?
No, and I don’t support reducing benefits. Our public employees took their jobs with the promise from their government that they would be taken care of. If the state does not honor that promise, it would further erode public trust and risk creating a further exodus of capable employees from our departments.
However, I do support giving our new public employees choices to alternative retirement plans. Specifically, plans that allow employees to take their contributions elsewhere if they make a career transition.
What I think more people should know is that we can fund a lot of our obligations to our people (not just pension liabilities) by effectively growing and diversifying our economy rather than pinching our already burdened citizens for more tax money.
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?
The petty infighting at the Capitol comes amid businesses closing and families losing everything. The fact that certain members of our government can’t put their inflated pride away to work to actually help people tells you a lot about their priorities. As a member of the Senate, I would enforce the appropriate checks on the executive branch but I can’t ensure public confidence in the Ige administration when I have none.
The people of Hawaii are tired of the constant silence from our political “leaders” when evidence of corruption and negligence continues to be revealed. As an independent candidate, I will never shy away from bringing the abuses of power to the light. The public deserves to know the truth and I will always support our local watchdogs and investigative journalists. I will also support granting our Ethics Commission and Campaign Spending Commission greater powers to investigate and issue fines.
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?
I do believe racial injustice and police reform are issues for Hawaii, as they are for the whole country. We all want to — and need to — do better. Increased transparency into officer misconduct and use of force cases through a federal database is certainly a start in the right direction. But these efforts should not be limited to our city and county police, but our state law enforcement officers as well (i.e., sheriffs, DLNR officers, etc.) Officers fired for misconduct should never find their way into another law enforcement uniform because we failed to be transparent.
We also need to accept that the problems of our justice system are not solely due to issues with police accountability. We need to take a holistic approach for real justice by reforming our criminal code, staffing enough prosecutors, confirming the right judges, and stop sending our local inmates to mainland for-profit prisons.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I do support this process. And, similar to what the counties have in place, I would have some particular items exclusive to the legislative branch.
With that being said, the strong desire for such initiatives wouldn’t exist if our legislators were more open and receptive to their constituents. You’re not going to be able to agree with everybody all the time, but the responsibility of a leader, especially in the political realm, is to properly communicate and inform their constituents of all aspects surrounding decisions.
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 strongly disagree with hiding public records. There are only two reasons I imagine the administration would find it necessary to do this: They are truly hiding something from the public and/or they underestimate the intelligence of our citizens. Both are extremely toxic ways to run a democracy.
As an independent, nonpartisan elected official, I won’t have to ask permission nor hesitate to make strong objections when I feel the government is not acting transparently or acting in the best interests of Hawaii residents. Trust is hard earned, and I plan to demonstrate integrity and honesty with my constituents to earn back that trust.
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 a huge priority to me — it is as big as pandemic preparedness is (now) a priority for local and national governments all around the world. The consequences of a world in which warming reaches 4°C above pre-industrial levels (which scientists predict will happen if no significant policy changes are undertaken) would bring an existential crisis to sea-level economies and communities such as ours. The threat of 3 feet or more of sea level rise in this century is real and is not likely to diminish given the overall trend in scientific research scenarios of sea level rise in this century.
Unfortunately, Hawaii shares a planet with billions of other people, whose collective actions directly and indirectly impact us. We must learn to adapt and make the appropriate plans and preparations for the worst-case scenarios. I agree with many of the Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission’s (2017) recommendations to support sustainable and resilient land use and community development, prioritizing smart development outside the flood risk zones, and incentivizing improved flood risk management. Although a “slower-moving” crisis than COVID-19, the climate crisis is very real and much closer than we think, and we must be ready.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
District 10 is one of the most dynamic small business hubs of our state. Hawaii was already a tough state to run a business in before COVID, but now, they are in desperate need of help. Without immediate economic support, vibrant commercial arteries like Waialae, Kapahulu, and Montsarrat could turn into boarded-up retail wastelands and many quality jobs would disappear.
If elected, one of the first things I would do would be to establish a small business advisory committee to assess the immediate needs of small businesses and what can be done at the Legislature to make sure these needs are addressed.
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.
The single biggest obstruction to our state’s progress and economic sovereignty is the Jones Act. Although the legislative position I seek does not have the power to amend the federal law, it is critical that our state pushes a unified front to lobby the U.S. Congress. I am inspired by King Kalākaua’s Polynesian Confederation in that Hawaii should be the leader in uniting other Pacific territories, Puerto Rico and Alaska because the Jones Act severely hurts them as well.
With access to affordable shipping, Hawaii can effectively diversify its economy away from tourism and military. Let’s find new markets for our farmers so that they may finally profit from their labor and decrease our reliance on handouts from Washington, D.C. If allowed to determine our own economic destiny, Hawaii could be a Pacific powerhouse financially, culturally and spiritually and one that the world would respect.
This is my vision for our Hawaii, and I am prepared to work tirelessly to make it a reality.