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 Brian Taniguchi, Democratic candidate for State Senate District 11, which includes Manoa, Makiki, Punchbowl and Papakolea.
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?
Generally, I would say that the response has been handled effectively. We have been among the lowest death/new infection rates in the country. I do think we probably could have shut things down a bit sooner but it was the right decision made at a difficult and uncertain time.
The 14-day quarantine requirement for visitors also needed to be enforced better when first implemented. I don’t fault the governor for that as I know that coordination and proper protocols needed to be established.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
It is not necessary to do any large-scale balancing or cutting at this time. The collection of income taxes was been moved to July 20 so that would be money coming in late. It is 2019 earnings so should be roughly the same as the year before. We had about $400 million in the rainy day fund which will help. We also put $100 million a year to deal with the retirement system’s unfunded liability, which could probably be suspended for a year or two. We would also be qualified to borrow from the federal government but the interest rates are not particularly favorable.
Our biggest potential source of funds would be under the congressional bill that passed the U.S. House but is stalled by Republicans in the U.S. Senate. Monies under that bill would let us plug up our state budget shortfall without major cuts. It is not clear, however, if that bill will pass.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
I have been in office for 40 years and from Day One, I have believed that we needed to diversify our economy. It is not as easy as most people think. I have always supported more money to support agriculture. I have supported Hawaii’s film tax credit and moves to help grow tech businesses.
When I was first elected, I was not particularly supportive of the tourism industry and was even attacked for supporting the establishment of the hotel room tax. However, I have come to realize that the tourism industry is pervasive throughout our economy. It is not only the airlines or the hotels (which do not really contribute to our community), but it is also restaurants, tour operators, retail and all the supporting businesses that provide jobs.
As much as I might not like the current commercial/profit-motivated industry, I will be supportive of giving support to a tourism industry that puts community and environmental interests as a priority.
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?
Most don’t fully understand the Employee Retirement System’s unfunded liability and what it means, including me. My simple understanding is that unfunded liability is the amount of money needed to pay all qualified employees and retirees their entire amount of retirement benefits due to them for their life expectancy if all of them retired tomorrow. So, I believe whatever level we want to fund it at is relative. A 100% funded system is great but if we have other needs like social services for the poor, the homeless, education/early education and affordable housing, it would seem that we should fund these pressing societal needs instead.
Unfunded liability for the EUTF (health fund) is different because we have historically treated it as pay-as-you-go system. With the federal GASB accounting regulations coming into effect a few years ago, it now must be treated like the ERS. Unfunded liability has an impact on our credit rating and this primarily affects our borrowing for construction projects.
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?
Rifts have existed between governors and legislatures for the 40 years I have served in the Legislature. I sometimes feel it may be systemic because of the different roles each plays. In the current dramas, the stakes seem higher so the rift may seem deep.
You recall that the session opened with a wonderfully united joint package of bills, dealing with the three big issues of affordable housing, early education and help for struggling working families. The pandemic has changed that.
Recently, I have sensed a more cooperative spirit because of the success of the governor’s COVID strategy. People lose trust when we spend a lot of time fighting among ourselves. They expect us to do the best job we can and I am hopeful that we can continue to work together, even with differing opinions.
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?
Discrimination against people of color is an important issue. As a legislator, I was part of a group of Asian and Pacific American state legislators who helped to establish the National Asian and Pacific American Caucus of State Legislators (NAPACSL) as an official caucus of our national legislator organization, the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). NAPACSL has issued a number of position statements regarding racism and recently co-sponsored a webinar on the alarming attacks on Asian Americans because of the racist belief that this is somehow an “Asian” disease.
Although we are not immune, Hawaii has generally not had the kind of tragic police incidents befalling black citizens that have been occurring on the mainland. However, my sense is that we do need to improve training, especially in avoiding the use of deadly force. As a law school student, I did go on a police observation ride as part of my criminal justice class requirements. It was eye-opening because I didn’t realize how volatile and dangerous the work of our police was.
I do support adequate funding for oversight boards and would like to see disclosure of serious misconduct records by police agencies.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I do not support statewide initiative. It is easily controlled by moneyed interests and does not provide more “access to democracy.”
I believe a vibrant legislative process with strong notice and participation requirements is a better decision-making process.
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 believe the governor has amended his emergency order or issued a revised order to deal with this.
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?
The state will need to improve and “harden” infrastructure along our coasts and continue to fund research regarding reefs/coral. I have also voted for Senate bills that would establish a carbon tax.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Job loss and the struggles of small businesses in my district are the most pressing issues at this moment. I will continue to vote for to provide relief to both our unemployed and our small businesses.
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 would like to increase agricultural production. I strongly believe that the farmers of the future will not be what we perceive of as a lone individual doing back-breaking work at the mercy of pests, climate and low wholesale prices. The future farmer will house his/her crops in climate-controlled hothouses. At a point we could do it, I would provide startup government funding for proposals to build the hothouses in an ag park.
While we provide loans for farmers, this would be grants to also fund technological devices to provide climate control. I would also work to exempt rooftop agriculture in urban areas from zoning regulations but that would be under the jurisdiction of county governments.