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 Vicki Higgins, 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 Les Ihara.
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?
Our decision-makers failed in this regard. It was apparent that there was no plan or strategy to be implemented. The relatively low number of cases, I believe, remained low because of our resident culture which is to be safe and resilient for the benefit of others. We are typically not reckless as we have seen on the mainland.
While we were fortunate to have leadership from Lt. Gov. Josh Green because he is an actual medical doctor and spoke with conviction in terms of direction and guidance, all other elected officials were ambiguous at best.
As a senator, I would’ve looked into our emergency plans and explored all possible scenarios at the first mention of COVID-19 in January. We knew tourism would be impacted, we knew our working families would be impacted, yet there was no proactive implementation of any strategies to be as “pandemic proof” as possible. I definitely would’ve reached out beyond the public sector and into the health-care community to formulate a comprehensive “greater good” plan.
And with such a sizable constituency, I would not have closed my office. There were still any number of ways to communicate with my entire district.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
Our budget needs to be carefully reviewed for wasteful spending. Government has a tendency toward hemorrhage spending, rather than being thoughtful stewards of taxpayer dollars. I would utilize more of a private-sector mindset to examine spending practices and ensure our residents benefit from sound budget decisions.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
Everyone has been talking about diversifying our economy for decades, but there’s a few reasons that agriculture and renewable energy has not been able to get traction. The political will has been weak, there’s been a lack of decision-making and poor leadership. Further, working people are stuck in their jobs and don’t have the freedom to explore opportunities beyond the visitor industry.
I would be committed to making Hawaii super-competitive in terms of a thriving agricultural resource, as well as a leader in renewable energy. We have the capacity, we have the resources. This needs to happen so we can finally become less dependent on imported goods.
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?
Whenever we’re told there’s no money, that just means someone is not doing their job. Again, this is an area where we need to be proactive rather than reactive. Reducing benefits is immoral and shouldn’t even be an option.
Solving this problem requires some serious sleuthing, robust discussions with a broad range of experts, and decisive action. I have no doubt there is a clear pathway to resolving this issue.
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?
Firstly, I would engage the public in these issues, particularly my district. Too often, we forget that we are a government “by the people.” That is accomplished by being entirely transparent, and offering strategies and solutions to the public. The people have a high responsibility to be involved and engaged, in most instances they just require accurate information and guidance.
There is no good reason for an adversarial relationship between Governor’s Office and the Legislature. As senator, I would be in ongoing conversations with everyone in order to move issues forward. That includes county and federal as well.
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?
In contrast to statements made by Police Chief Ballard, I support reforms. To suggest that our PD doesn’t need reforms and that we should be “skipped over” ignores reality. The entire corruption scandal involving Louis and Katherine Kealoha highlights the need for more transparency – not less.
Our PD can only benefit from the types of reforms being proposed. I absolutely support disclosure of misconduct – law enforcement officers should be held to a higher standard. If a need for funding for oversight boards is justified then I would support it.
I would also like to see follow-up on situations such as the tragedy that occurred in Diamond Head in January 2020 to assure the public that procedures were addressed to prevent it from happening again. Good job for Civil Beat.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
This is a slippery slope due to mass amounts of misinformation being circulated today.
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’s perplexing that a firm decision was made to shut everything down. We still have access to technology and communications. With careful planning and coordination, many functions could still be performed.
For decades, there has been resistance to telecommuting. But we have learned with the onset of COVID-19 that people have the capability to utilize our current technologies to remain functional.
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?
This is a high priority – not only for us in Hawaii, but for everyone. This is an issue that threatens our existence. I would definitely bypass all special interests that are a barrier to protecting our planet, and be committed to moving forward with plausible and actionable plans that are consequential.
We have no shortage of experts and resources to assist in formulating and executing a plan – I would make every effort to coordinate and lead these efforts.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Homelessness — there are successful models that can be implemented in Hawaii which consist of shelter and treatment. Without an intervention this problem will become exponentially worse, resulting in further decline of the human condition.
Resources to implement quality treatment for addicts is imperative. We have seen successes with private/public partnerships. Homeless people from other states cannot continue to relocate to Hawaii.
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.
Our government needs to update its infrastructure, no doubt – and we have lived too long with the status quo. But my big idea is universal basic income (UBI) for the people of Hawaii. Imagine if this were already in place prior to the unforeseen onset of COVID-19. We saw our hard-working residents on all islands lose their livelihood and found themselves in long lines for food the next day – Hawaii had the highest unemployment rate in the nation. And we saw that unemployment benefits were not forthcoming in a timely way to keep families whole.
This is one way we can become “pandemic proof” because another hit to tourism is inevitable. Also, if we had UBI for Hawaii, many people would not be “stuck” in certain jobs and would have the flexibility to pool their resources toward some upward mobility – or pursue other opportunities – perhaps in agriculture or renewable energy.
I would also pursue eliminating credit checks for people looking to rent apartments. Many people, particularly single mothers, are unable to improve their living conditions for their families because of this barrier – despite having the ability to demonstrate a good record of paying rent.