Editor’s note: For Hawaii’s Nov. 3 General 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 Mark Nakashima, Democratic candidate for state House District 1, which includes Hamakua, North Hilo and South Hilo. The other candidate is Republican Lorraine Shin.
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 first stay at home order was appropriate. It kept Hawaii’s numbers low and bought us time to learn more about the COVID pandemic. Behind the scenes, federal, state and local leaders were working around the clock trying to balance industry and economic needs, union and government policies, emergency and health care response, and public communication. That effectiveness in the quality of response was lost to the volume of the need and response. When the stay at home order lifted, we were in trouble again.
Weaknesses in the response plans were revealed, including inadequate contact tracing, insufficient testing and lab support, and contradicting priorities at the leadership level. It doesn’t make sense that some test results needed up to 10 days processing; that travelers both resident and nonresidents were still a loophole in the response system; that the state House of Representative’s leadership were the ones to take initiative to stand up the state’s unemployment pop-up call center; that response to COVID clusters, especially in our senior care facilities, is sorely inadequate with best practices being difficult to act on.
One of my priorities was to quickly move Federal CARES funds into the budget of unemployment, rather than hold onto it. I learned how disheartening it is for someone who lost their job due to the shutdown to hear that unemployment funds are running out. I worked at the call center for about 12 weeks, up to six days a week.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
The state House of Representatives has taken a position that savings can be created in the state budget with minimum use of furloughs or other program cuts. Too many cuts will have a cumulative negative impact on the economy. Rather, one idea is with the state spending budgeted monies on capital improvements and moving their timeline, we can get money moving throughout the economy faster. One shovel-ready project I am proud of is the expansion of the Hilo Medical Center Oncology Center that will break ground in October.
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 always been a strong proponent of labor and workforce training and education. The Hawaii Legislature has already appropriated an additional $2 million for requalification of employees in aloha aina projects. These efforts are aimed at forest restoration and environmental protection, and include meaningful work that also focuses on sustainability and agriculture.
In Hawaii, we have a lot of land to restore, protect and care for. In addition, $750 million in micro-grants are now available for workforce development through advisory committees in the Department of Labor.
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?
Several years ago as House Labor chair, I proposed a bill that would pay 100% of state employee medical cost now, thus reducing future liability significantly. This was coupled with a reduction in available paid time off days. I believed that this would greatly benefit state workers at the lower end of the pay scale by increasing the amount of salary in pocket because at lower salaries, a larger percentage of salary usually went to pay for health benefit cost.
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?
The House COVID Committee was created to help guide the House and inform state leaders in making decisions and provide expert information from sector leaders and community input into the issues and concerns brought about by the pandemic. House leaders continue to work with the Senate COVID Committee and the governor to influence policy and decisions. Part of government transparency is, ironically, seeing it evolve when it deals with something so massive as a pandemic; including when heads lock.
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?
On discrimination, Hawaii is lucky. We are a melting pot of different colors, ethnicities and beliefs. My experience is that people are proud of where we come from and who they represent, but when someone is in need, there is a blur in color lines. For those who’ve grown up here, they’ve tasted the foods of and heard the voices from many cultures, all of their lives. Equally important is the unified culture of aloha within this state. I think it is our diversity that unifies us.
On policing, I’ve seen and heard stories of county policing doing a lot more good than bad in our state.
That being said, I voted for the expansion of information to be made available to the public based on police misconduct this past session.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
Residents in my district have not raised this concern with me.
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 do not agree with this action. I would work with the Office of Information Practices to modify current law to avoid this situation in the future.
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?
For the past several years, the Hawaii Legislature has routinely approved requests for submerged leases that allow creation of seawalls for multimillion-dollar properties at very economical rates. I have always believed that these requests required more scrutiny and should be revised given the information on the damage that this policy continues to have on the greater island economy.
Many experts have suggested that seawalls ultimately cause greater damage to the environment than than the parcels of land that are protected. This policy must be revisited and the price paid for such exemptions be more significant.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The lack of good-paying jobs for residents is a major concern. The opportunities for better-paying jobs in the country comes at some cost.
Among these efforts I continue to fight for greater connectivity and expanded wireless connectivity into the rural areas of my district.
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 relook at state positions and systems that may be outdated and allow free-thinking of how things can be done better, more efficiently or just differently. Training and enabling of state employees to be solution-minded, out-of-the-box thinkers would help the state to retool and expand its products and services. One of the major hindrances of change in the state are the policies that govern the micro-management of services at the management level; and the fear of being a boat rocker at the workforce level.
If I were to create a better state, I want a workforce of people who are proud to be state employees, to know they matter and they are making a positive difference. They matter and are doing the work that needs to be done and they are making life better for others. Leadership and staff training should not be subject to budget constraints and manipulation.