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 Stanley Chang, Democratic candidate for State Senate District 9, which includes Hawaii Kai, Kuliouou, Niu, Aina Haina, Waialae-Kahala and Diamond Head.
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?
Hawaii has done a remarkable job of keeping the local coronavirus threat contained to a safe level. We ought to be proud of the fact that we have the third-lowest number of COVID-19 cases in the U.S. and have flattened the curve to well within our capacity to treat those who need it. We have all sacrificed to make this happen, and I am particularly grateful for the hard work of our medical and public health community. However, it is undeniable that our economy has been and will continue to be gravely affected by the public health measures that have been implemented.
One thing I would have done differently was to redeploy workers more quickly to the Unemployment Insurance Division. Clearly, the division was not prepared to handle the avalanche of claims that it faces today. Another would be to work to make the maximum amount of federal coronavirus funding available for individual relief. The hours-long lines for free food, the tens of thousands of people still waiting for their first unemployment checks are just two symptoms of the pervasive crisis that could have been ameliorated by legislative action.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
The state budget cannot and should not be balanced as long as the pandemic continues to suffocate our economy. The state constitution permits an unbalanced budget during times of emergency, which we are clearly in today. Trying to cut the state budget will only exacerbate our economic pain.
The good news is that we have more options than ever to access credit, such as the federal Municipal Liquidity Facility and Department of Labor. With these tools, we must protect the continued delivery of services to the most vulnerable in our society.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
There are several promising economic sectors that the state should grow, as the pandemic has exposed the economic vulnerability of the tourism industry. Two sectors offer the lowest-hanging fruit.
First, the demand for affordable housing has only grown with the downturn in the economy. With existing construction techniques, new housing units can be built for as little as $300,000 each, which translates to a mortgage or rental payment of $1,500 per month, which a majority of Hawaii residents consider to be affordable. Proper safeguards can ensure that these units will be available to Hawaii residents. The continued production of these homes for every generation of local people, without taxpayer subsidy, would provide a steady construction job pipeline for years and decades to come.
Second, Hawaii can replace the fossil fuels that currently supply the large majority of our electricity with renewable sources. Hawaii’s abundance of wind, solar, biofuel and other clean energy sources could make us the Saudi Arabia of clean energy. Every year, we send over $5 billion out of state to buy oil. Keeping that money in state enables it to be deployed to create jobs and stimulate the economy here, rather than overseas.
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?
The state has taken aggressive measures to address its unfunded liabilities. I do not support benefit reductions, as these would only exacerbate the economic crisis caused by the pandemic. In the short term, various lending options are available for these needs. In the long term, we must continue to focus on growing the economy, which will enable the sustainability of these payments.
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?
Leading by example is the best way we can facilitate public confidence in government. As we have been doing since entering office, I pledge to maintain full transparency and communication with my constituents through newsletter updates, mailed surveys, public conferences, emails and more.
Over the next two years, we will work hard to coordinate our policy goals with both fellow legislators and the governor, to keep our constituents informed on our proceedings, and to earn our constituency’s trust in my efforts to effect change statewide.
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?
Although our race and policing issues are different from those in our sister states, we have serious issues of our own, including open racism against the Micronesian community, hostility to immigrants and new residents from the American continent, and lingering tension among our existing ethnic groups.
I support reforms that strengthen oversight over our law enforcement and address police misconduct. I support universal body cam use. I support House Bill 285’s disclosure requirement. I believe in an empowered, fully funded police commission and oversight boards to enhance public accountability.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I don’t support a citizens initiative process. In California, big money special interests have repeatedly hijacked the initiative process to pass measures that have long-term negative impacts on the state. Moreover, an initiative does not include opportunities for ironing out details that the legislative process affords.
In Hawaii, voters do vote on constitutional amendments, and that process has illustrated some of the problems with initiatives. In the 2018 election, the Hawaii Supreme Court struck down a constitutional amendment ballot question to raise property taxes for education funding because it was too vague. The legislative process includes several chances for public input on the text of a bill and for legislators to address any issues that do arise, which makes it a preferable process to the initiative.
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 disagree with this decision. Transparency in government is crucial for a healthy and informed democracy in Hawaii. Gov. Ige’s suspension of public access to vital records, regardless of whether or not it expedites our efforts to combat the coronavirus, is inherently wrong. I am grateful that Gov. Ige chose to revise his decision in May, and I believe that we must return to total transparency as soon as possible.
As a state senator, I affirm my continuing commitment to transparent politics, and pledge to notify my constituents of testimony opportunities, legislative decisions, and public committee hearings and meetings via my newsletters, social media, public meetings and more.
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?
Combating climate change is among my top priorities as state senator. King tides of ever-greater frequency and severity, shoreline erosion and record coral bleaching events are just the early symptoms of this crisis.
Hawaii’s first in the nation 100 percent renewable energy goal has a target date of 2045, and I support accelerating that timeline to reduce carbon emissions even more quickly. I believe in a fundamentally different approach to urban planning — high density mixed use developments near rail stations, all emphasizing walkability — that would essentially eliminate car transportation, the only other major local source of carbon emissions. This approach would be integrated into our “ALOHA Homes” proposal, as described in greater detail below.
I also have consistently supported taxes on carbon emissions, real estate disclosures of inundation risk due to sea level rise, and other bills designed to address climate change’s impacts on our communities.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The most pressing issue facing my district, and most of this state, is the housing shortage. The most visible manifestation of the housing shortage is the large homeless population statewide, including in Hawaii Kai, Kahala, Diamond Head and other neighborhoods that may not be considered traditional hotspots for homelessness.
But these individuals are just the tip of the iceberg. An even greater crisis is the people we don’t see on the streets, because they have moved to the mainland. It is no longer realistic for most young people to have good jobs, buy homes, start families and live good lives comparable to previous generations of local people. For the past three straight years, Hawaii has lost population — the first time since statehood. The exodus of our young people to the mainland now greatly exceeds migration from the mainland to Hawaii. Hawaii is becoming affordable only to the few, and the very few.
I have proposed a new plan called “ALOHA Homes” to end Hawaii’s housing shortage through the construction of high density residential units on state-owned lands. Because it is such a big idea, I will describe it in more detail in response to the next question.
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.
My Big Idea is a new social contract with the people of Hawaii: If you work full time, your family will be able to live a good life.
We already have many of the components, such as universal free K-12 education and near-universal health care. After decades of undersupply, the biggest missing component of the vision is housing.
“ALOHA Homes” is one solution to the housing shortage: affordable, locally owned homes for all. The state would take existing lands that it owns near rail stations, such as parcels already slated for redevelopment or other underutilized parcels, and build high density housing. These developments would be highly walkable, and their residents would commute via rail instead of in cars. They would be sold at cost, as little as $300,000, which means a monthly mortgage payment of $1,500. There would be no taxpayer subsidy, and only Hawaii residents who would be owner-occupants and own no other real property could buy them. These projects would be built on existing urbanized.
Future generations will be able to move out and start families of their own instead of being trapped in their childhood bedrooms. They will be able to enjoy time with their families instead of spending hours stuck in traffic or rushing from one shift to the next.
And for all those who prefer their current car-centric suburbs, that’s fine. Not one existing house need be demolished to make way for these projects. This vision is possible, indeed it is imperative, from a sustainability perspective. All we need is the leadership to take the first step.