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 Glenn Wakai, Democratic candidate for State Senate District 15, which includes Kalihi, Mapunapuna, Airport, Salt Lake, Aliamanu, Foster Village, Hickam and Pearl Harbor.
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?
Yes and No. Yes, to the public health response. We flattened the curve to the point where there is minimal community spread. No, to the state’s lack of a plan to reopen our economy. We cannot keep the airport doors locked unit a vaccine is developed. I have advocated “Three T’s” at the airport: temperature, testing and tracing. The Health Department only embraces tracing.
I pushed Department of Transportation airports in February to purchase thermal cameras, similar to what was instituted in Taiwan following SARS. The airports are finally installing those cameras in July.
Now I am highly encouraging them to institute testing at the airport. The push back from DOH is that testing is unreliable. We are not going to catch 100% of the virus carriers, but if we catch most of them, isn’t that better than letting 100% through and trying to chase them down after social media posts?
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
I would protect first responders, teachers and those providing essential safety net services. Everything else is up for cuts. I would look at non-essential personnel and programs and contemplate reducing their impact on the budget.
Personnel costs account for 70% of the state’s operational costs. When tax revenue are expected to drop by more than 25%, staff cuts will eventually need to be part of the solution.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
We always bemoan our isolation as the price of paradise. I advocate shifting that thought process to contemplating how is our location to our advantage. How can we create greater GDP, quality jobs and become global leaders?
I have offered the “Triple A Economic Plan”: aerospace, aquaculture and alternative energy. In all three areas, Hawaii has a strategic advantage. I have spent years pushing these sectors, but when tourism is humming along, no one sees a need to diversity our economy. COVID has shown us the folly of putting all our eggs into the tourism basket.
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?
Our plans to pay for the state’s unfunded liabilities changes from year to year. I would oppose a reduction in benefits for those are already in the system. We made a deal with past and current employees.
I would be open to cutting benefits for future employees. In order to have pension revenues and cost lines to cross, we need to grow our economy and scale back the rich retirement packages offered to future employees.
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?
Get visionary and thoughtful leaders to the table. Legislators are elected by the public and are fully accountable to constituents. The governor is elected, but none of his directors represent the people. State administrators can come up with an assortment of ideas, but the public has no way to vet those proposals.
Only elected officials can question plans to expend state funds and address the pressing needs of the day. Collaboration can only begin when stakeholders are willing meet.
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?
Racial tensions exist in Hawaii, but to a lesser degree than on the continent. There are rouge cops in every police force across the planet. Troubles here are more based on lack of training and poor individual judgment.
I support accountability in all corners of government. I am not sure how adequate funding for boards will improve outcomes. The public just needs to get competent and courageous people onto those boards.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
No. Look at California, where confusing referendums take up a majority of the ballot. Every person in Hawaii has an opportunity to have their issues brought to the public arena through their elected representatives.
If you are not happy with an issue the better route to take is to talk to your senator or representative, rather than initiating a petition.
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 support those emergency powers for 60 days, as allowed for by statute. The governor needs flexibility in reallocating funds and personnel in times of crisis. Since the governor signed the first proclamation on March 4, that clock ran out on May 3. The crisis has now moved into damage control. I don’t believe skirting Sunshine Laws for more than 60 days is necessary.
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?
We need to adhere to, and fund the Hawaii Sustainability Plan. We already have the directives to mitigate climate changes affects on our state. We already paid hundreds of thousands of dollars for that plan. There just needs to be the desire to fund those initiatives.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Currently, it’s unemployment. I have offered a plan, for the short term and long term, to put people back to work and diversify our economy.
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.
Hawaii needs to embrace public-private partnerships (PPP). We can no longer expect large government projects to be fully funded by taxpayers and managed by government. Rail is an example of how that model is a train wreck. By contrast, Aloha Stadium is a PPP that has met important deadlines, despite COVID. We fully expect it to be built on time and on budget.
We also need to push efficiency in government operations, not hire more people to take care of future problems. The current struggles with managing unemployment benefits is due to the state long ignoring upgrades to that system. In Hawaii we spend just over 1% of the state budget on technology upgrade. Progressive states spend north of 4% on IT personnel and infrastructure.