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 Donovan Dela Cruz, Democratic candidate for State Senate District 22, which includes Mililani Mauka, Waipio Acres, Wheeler, Wahiawa, Whitmore Village and a portion of Poamoho. The other Democratic candidate is Thora-Jean Cuaresma.
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?
While we were effective in flattening the curve, we need to work with the administration for more transparent and decisive action. This could have reduced confusion and expedited economic recovery. Without the stringent measures implemented; our economy would have still greatly suffered due to rampant infection rates, as seen in other states. Since the start of the pandemic, the state has made improvements in its responses and procedures to contain the virus. The Senate Special Committee which I am chair of helped expedite the implementation of:
• Airport Screening Procedures and Travel Information Forms
• 14-day mandatory quarantine for all incoming passengers
• One-Key Initiative
• Banning of all rental cars to anyone quarantined
• Redeployment of non-essential State employees who cannot work from home
• Banning of all vacation rentals and B&Bs during the emergency order
• Improvements to the UI processing system
The Senate passed resolutions SR146 and SR166 in March, highlighting the need for the color-coded lockdown system and requesting all departments present a response plan. We sent two letters to the governor regarding a travel bubble (to get the hotel economy going) and pooling. The state needs to be proactive. There needs to be more community outreach and communication between departments and branches.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
The closing of Hawaii’s tourism industry and small businesses caused a budget shortfall of $1.5 billion. If the 14-day mandatory quarantine and stay-at-home order remain in place, we will not see visitors returning anytime soon. To balance the budget, the Legislature rejected all the governor’s supplemental requests, cut vacant positions, and used unspent savings from the previous fiscal year. We need to ensure core and safety net programs go uninterrupted.
Instead of furloughs, we need to make strategic cuts. We need to analyze programs to determine their effectiveness. All these solutions derive from the advice of UH economists. If cuts are necessary, we must start at the top, not the bottom. We must protect the necessary programs and services supporting those economically impacted by this pandemic. We must also ensure the continuity of projects which aid economic recovery.
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 need DBEDT and its agencies to drive the diversification of our economy. Three industries that have rapid growth potential are film, cybersecurity and agriculture. Hawaii has always been a premier filming location. Our natural resources coupled with the film tax credit, creates hundreds of local jobs, and markets our state. I would continue to push for a creative media park that would provide a post-production facility, which would create an economic hub for the entertainment industry.
We also have a major demand in the areas of computer science and cybersecurity. There is a shortage of STEM professionals here in Hawaii. I will continue to push for the wider integration of the successful education pathways, which I have piloted in my district, preparing students to be globally competitive.
Finally, we must invest in large- and small-scale agriculture: Ag-tech, value-added centers and regional product specialties. We import over 85% of the food we consume. We need to increase local production. I will continue to support programs that assist local farmers to access markets as well as scale up production for valuable export crops and value-added products. I also will support communities working to develop regional economic development plans.
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?
We have plans for both. In 2013, we approved a plan to make additional payments to bring down the state’s unfunded liability. In addition, for future employees, the Legislature has adjusted the contribution amount required by employees to help pay down the state’s unfunded liability. This is to prevent reductions in benefits.
It is incumbent upon us to provide a solution that will not burden future generations. There are timelines and plans to pay for the state’s unfunded liabilities and provide for public employee pension and health obligations.
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?
That’s democracy in action. It’s important to have healthy discourse during times of crisis. The state Senate established the Special Committee on COVID-19 to ensure efficient and effective communication and public safety. Due to a public demand for more information from the administration, the committee meetings became the venue to discuss important issues.
We will continue to be transparent and conduct public hearings to ensure the public has access to information and decision-making processes. This will go toward creating more accountability for our officials, and therefore increase public confidence.
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?
This is a very important issue for Hawaii because of our ethnic diversity. We must provide more transparency so the public can know about officers who have been disciplined for misconduct and unethical behavior. I also believe the law enforcement standards board will, per its statutory duty, review procedures across state and county government and recommend necessary changes.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I support the current constitutional processes that outline how policy is established. I support our citizens electing members of the Legislature and that every 10 years the public decides if a constitutional convention is necessary.
The Legislature also has the ability to pass constitutional amendments for citizens to consider at each election.
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 would not suspend the public records law as the public has a right to access government records. However, a portion of the Sunshine Law which requires six-day notice for any public meetings may not be conducive to the current circumstances. There may be key votes or decisions that boards and commissions may have to make in order to operate government during the pandemic.
However, this does not mean that boards and commissions should deliberately ignore the Sunshine Law because it is authorized under the emergency order. It should only be done under excruciating circumstances.
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?
Hawaii should immediately protect its coastal areas by limiting development on the shorelines. This is a major priority for me since I believe development along shorelines leads to erosion. That’s why I introduced Senate Bill 2060, which would have amended coastal zone management laws to further protect against impacts of sea level rise and coastal erosion.
The state needs to acquire coastal zone lands in order to preserve them into perpetuity.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
In addition to traffic and homelessness, the cost of living in Hawaii is one of the most pressing issues for many across the state. We need to diversify the economy and ensure better-paying jobs. Investing in education and workforce development, creating incentives for small business, and investing in infrastructure are vital to grow jobs in agriculture, energy, commuter science and cyber security, health care, film production, and research and development.
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 COVID-19 pandemic has caused us to reflect and realize that it’s time to examine the government we have and develop a plan that will produce better, more efficient outcomes for our residents. This may mean dissolving or merging departments or divisions so we can better respond to the needs of our citizens.
We would need to update IT systems to replace any antiquated technology that hinders government services and operations. This has already been added to the state budget. The UI system is a key function, especially during times of economic hardship. We must improve it as soon as possible to prevent delays in unemployment payments if a second surge once again shuts down non-essential businesses.