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 Gil Keith-Agaran, Democratic candidate for State Senate District 5, which includes Wailuku, Waihee and Kahului.
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?
The governor’s and mayors’ conservative approach and most residents complying with physical distancing orders and recommendations successfully kept the number of cases and deaths in Hawaii low. Given the uncertainties surrounding COVID-19, the governor’s reliance on the state epidemiologist and her Department of Health (DOH) staff is understandable.
For residents, however, the lieutenant governor demonstrated better communication instincts, understanding a need to balance DOH’s (and CDC’s) risk-adverse recommendations and guidelines with the inherent economic, social and political impacts. People want and expect clear, consistent information during an emergency. Unclear messages regarding testing’s role and importance (whether based on limited testing resources or basic public health principles) undoubtedly raised questions regarding risks posed by asymptomatic but contagious residents continuing to interact with their families and co-workers. DOH keeps some information close to the vest, adding to expanded public distress (for example, DOH was aware of positive cases associated with a local hospital weeks before a cluster was disclosed and declared).
The administration should have anticipated the spike in unemployment insurance claims with the visitor industry shutting down and been prepared to redeploy state employees and resources to assist in processing those claims.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
In the short run, we should focus on continuing important services residents depend on in the wake of this pandemic. Drastic cuts to government services would only add to the economic challenges of our community and our businesses. The constitution provides the governor options in managing finances, including borrowing.
If Congress does not allow more flexibility to use CARES to fill budget holes, or provide direct financial support for state and local government shortfalls, services protecting health, safety and welfare programs will still need to be staffed and operated. Pre-COVID-19, the $8 Billion state general fund operating budget largely supported public lower (23% or about $1.9 billion) and higher education (6% or about $518 million), basic human services (15.7% or about $1.2 billion) and health programs (8% or about $668.5 million), and public safety (3% or about $271 million) programs. 38% or about $3 billion are fixed costs (i.e., pension and health benefits, Medicaid, debt service).
Across the board percentage cuts would not reflect important basic priorities, requiring larger cuts in the remaining departments which receive 5% or about $387.6 million.
Tax policies should be reviewed, with the elimination or suspension of certain credits and exemptions balanced against keeping schools open and upholding the social safety net.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
Diversification has been a long-standing concern that the pandemic only bluntly highlights. We should support economic development promoting self-sufficiency. Funding should be invested in workforce development advancing Hawaii’s own resiliency — for example, health care.
Maui Health System (MHS) now hires nurses directly from the University of Hawaii Maui College (UHMC) and takes on their training on the job (the Hawaii Health Systems Corporation generally required nurses to get experience elsewhere and consequently contracted traveling nurses — new UHMC graduates needed to move off island for training without any assurance they would return). MHS is also looking for local medical technicians to reduce the number of off-island contractors, working with UHMC to develop a program or to partner with Kapiolani Community College.
This year, one of the legislative priorities for the John A. Burns School of Medicine was medical education and training on the Valley Isle. In connection with Mahi Pono’s agricultural activities, the state should support UHMC and the Farm Bureau/Farmers Union efforts to develop value-added products from the crops. Finally, we should build on the growing number of solar, wind and other alternative energy projects to develop, adopt and market the technologies required to grow local opportunities.
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?
Yes, Hawaii was on track before the pandemic to fund the pension and health obligations over time. The projected unfunded pension and retiree health fund costs (OPEB) exceeds the current state’s $8 billion general fund operating budget. Hawaii set an aggressive approach, balancing the resources available with increasingly larger contributions by the state and counties scheduled to begin in the next couple of years.
Historically, better benefits exchanged for less pay than the private sector was part of the trade-off for government employment. Retirement benefits were part of the bargain and fairness requires government live to its end. The Hawaii Supreme Court has ruled that benefits cannot be reduced retroactively for employees already vested in the retirement system. Changes to retirement benefits, which have been implemented over the last 20 years, are only applied to employees hired after the changes take effect (for example, employees hired after a certain date no longer receive state-paid post-retirement health coverage for spouses and require more years of service to vest in the health fund).
Unless our economy recovers quicker, projected budget shortfalls may require paying down the unfunded liabilities over a longer time.
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?
I work well with the governor and his administration but I have had and will continue to have frank discussions with them (both privately and in public settings) about issues important to my community and for the state. That’s simply what my constituents expect. Productive criticism, persistent prodding and budget and program oversight are part of any legislator’s job.
The Senate’s work has been important in moving the state response forward faster and more constructively than the sluggish timetable of the bureaucracy, including redeploying state employees still collecting paychecks to assist with processing unemployment insurance claims, and demanding that economic development agencies perform their taxpayer-funded jobs. Shedding a light on shortcomings in the administration is part of the transparency that the public should demand. Generally, most of the state leaders put aside egos, understanding and accepting in a mature fashion the role vigorous debate and deliberation in paving the path forward for collaborative, collective decisions.
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?
Equal and fair treatment of all residents by law enforcement is a national concern. It should also be a local concern. Racism exists in the islands and is directed at different communities in various ways, sometimes openly and at times embedded in our own local institutions and traditions.
I’ve supported the use of body cameras during interactions between law enforcement and the public.
While the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA) has certified most Hawaii law enforcement agencies, the Legislature created a local law enforcement standards board. That local oversight body should have the funding required to accomplish its goals. It should generate training requirements on de-escalation during interactions with the public and set uniform policies on proper use of force. Addressing profiling and discrimination should be part of the training and policies of local police.
County charters should grant county police commissions broader authority in reviewing disciplinary cases and the present internal affairs process should be run by an independent, third-party agency rather than officers employed by the same department investigated. Disclosure of police records in the same manner other government employee disciplinary records are released.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
No. I don’t agree with the assumption that “citizens initiatives” are more democratic than the legislative process. Ballot initiatives often result from parochial and narrow concerns of well-organized, well-funded groups (often from out-of-state) who have the resources to collect the number of signatures required to place a question on the ballot. These are often the same groups residents complain have too much influence at the Legislature.
If you set the signature bar low (like to run for office) and allow a large number of ballot measures, then voters will have a book to read before voting and only a minority of people will review that information diligently. I place more confidence in getting better decisions reached through the local public hearing process and deliberation and debate during a legislative session and perhaps several sessions.
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 disagreed with the scope of the emergency proclamation and with Sen. Karl Rhoads co-signed an April 10, 2020 letter asking the governor to revise the order:
“Agencies already have ample flexibility under HAR §§ 2-71-13 to 15 to respond to record requests with extended deadlines in emergency circumstances …
“We find in the case of the Uniform Information Practices Act, there are already enough remedies within the rules to accommodate current government operations. If agencies require additional time to respond to requests, this can be accomplished by creating an extension of the response time, rather than a suspension of the whole chapter. Based on the facts herein, we respectfully urge you to reinstate HRS §92F Uniform Information Practices Act with the limited exception of giving agencies more time to respond.”
The existing statute provides the process and all state agencies should comply with its requirements. To his credit, the governor amended his original order, giving agencies flexibility in the timing of the response but still requiring a response as quick as possible.
Each department should have a designated “ombudsman” tasked with insuring compliance with open meeting requirements, the public records law and timely responses to public record requests.
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’re an island state. Climate change is the most important issue. Global warming is already happening. More hurricanes, drought followed by sudden storms and rising sea levels are all going to change Hawaii in ways that will impact and change the quality of life for all our residents.
Government should implement the Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission recommendations. All county planning, especially in coastal areas, should incorporate climate change considerations. The state and counties should also lead by example in moving key public infrastructure (roadways, water and wastewater reclamation facilities and utility plants) mauka of vulnerable coastal areas for managed retreat.
Using carbon tax and/or green tax revenues, Hawaii could implement WPA-like initiatives for island residents displaced from their pre-pandemic jobs for various public works projects (including addressing the backlog of repair and maintenance of existing university, public school and other office facilities and buildings), and reforesting as mitigation for the state’s carbon footprint.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Maui must reopen its local economy, including tourism sooner rather than later but with proper precautions in place to meet possible COVID-19 resurgence. Maui Nui (without substantial military investments or presence as an additional leg of its economic stool) remains more dependent on the visitor industry than other counties.
I support prioritizing visitors from “travel bubbles” — countries and mainland regions which have addressed the pandemic well (i.e., Japan, South Korea, New Zealand, Australia).
An expected initial reluctance to travel also gives Maui an opportunity to plan tourism (as reported, spending from 10 million tourists in recent years only equals revenue from a smaller and more manageable visitor number decades ago) that better balances impacts on our local population, infrastructure and natural environment. One of the measures under consideration remains some kind of “green fee” to charge all visitors that would be invested to mitigate the impacts of tourism on local communities and resources.
Senate Bill 75 HD1 includes funding for thermal scanner equipment at airports as another tool for detecting possible cases and supporting contact tracing efforts. However, development of quick tests or requiring some kind of passenger pre-clearance (working with Hawaii’s congressional delegation and federal authorities) should also be pursued.
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 pandemic disclosed what we knew: The number of working families living on the financial edge remains way too high. The Legislature began this session with a consensus on chipping away at the costs of living — housing, child care, wages and taxes — that make life challenging for many residents even in good times.
The present impacts will likely push more people onto this bracket. Many residents who had little to no savings, quickly lost their jobs (including multiple jobs) and with their jobs their health care insurance. Like other communities throughout the country, others had to continue to work in health care and other areas deemed “essential” but lowly paid (like grocery clerks), opening themselves to continued health risks.
We need to still address those quality of life needs. Hawaii needs to directly subsidize for-sale homes (as it does rentals) to bring prices down for local working families; the budget includes money to pay for housing infrastructure. Our tax credits (EITC and rental housing) should provide more help for these residents. We need to seriously look at single payer health care (rather than linked to employment), paid family and medical leave like other industrialized nations.