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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 Nadine Nakamura, Democratic candidate for state House District 14, which includes Hanalei, Princeville, Kilauea, Anahola, Kapaa and Wailua. The other candidate is Republican Steve Monas.
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?
I think the state’s initial stay at home order, between March–May, was strong, resulting in few positive cases, timely contact tracing, and low hospitalization rates. However, between June–August, the state administration did not fully implement their stated contact tracing plan on Oahu, information about the nature of positive cases was not shared with the public, and the needs of Pacific Island and Filipino populations were not adequately addressed, resulting in a spike that continues as of this writing.
Ramping up a contact tracing operation from less than 10 full-time employees to 250-400 employees requires a commitment from leadership, resources and management skills to get it done, including people, training, equipment and office space. We know the federal government and state Legislature provided adequate financial resources to get this done and training successfully took place. Clearly, implementation did not occur in a transparent and timely manner. I would have assigned the creation of a contact tracing division to someone with project management skills and knowledge of the state bureaucracy to get it done.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
I believe all options (borrowing, cutting equally across the board, making budget cuts of specific programs, re-examining tax credits and exemptions, and furloughs) are on the table to address the projected $2.3 billion deficit, that may increase by January 2021. I would protect safety net programs and programs that support the health and safety of our residents.
I’m concerned about the duration of the pandemic and likelihood that many of the jobs may not be coming back anytime soon. With this in mind, we must invest in workforce re-training, education and filling positions in both critical workforce shortage areas (teachers, social workers, engineering, health fields) and jobs in the green economy.
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 support providing business planning and consulting services to every interested business owner in Hawaii funded by unallocated CARE Act funds. Businesses that are solely reliant on the visitor industry must pivot and find a new way forward. The sooner this is done, the better. Start-up grants and technical resources, including mentors, should be made available to promising businesses. The state has an important role to play in encouraging innovative industries by supporting sand boxes and creative business hubs.
I support diversifying the economy by promoting agriculture in strategic ways: assisting farmers with the technology to be financially self-sufficient, food production hubs to create value-added products, promoting high value products such as hemp, and community supported agriculture.
Due to the length of time it takes to develop new industries, I also believe we should provide expanded opportunities within the tourism industry. We should expand tourism niche markets by enhancing the natural beauty and resources throughout our state, including trails, overlooks and beach parks. We should promote our unique host and multi-cultures, by investing in training, authentic interactions with visitors, interpretive signage, and smart phone applications. We should encourage visitors to ride convenient shuttles with drivers who can “tell the story” of place, history and culture in a fun and compelling way. Two other niche markets I support include agricultural tourism and health and wellness tourism as both are in alignment with our values of preserving open space and promoting good health.
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?
As of 2019, the Hawaii Employees’ Retirement System pension plan was 55% funded, with assets of $17.2 billion. There were 125,589 active, retired and vested employees, with $14 billion in unfunded liability. Assuming a 7% rate of return, it will take until June 30, 2045, to become whole.
The Employer Union Health Benefits Trust fund was 13% funded, with assets of $1.8 billion. It will take until June 30, 2044, to be 99.5% funded.
In 2017, the Legislature passed a bill increasing the state and county contribution amount to close the funding shortfall due to retirees living longer, lower investment returns and amount of unfunded liability. I believe both plans attempt to balance the need to fully fund these obligations and other critical budgetary needs of the state.
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 leadership has asked for “all hands on deck” to assist the administration through this pandemic. Volunteering at the Unemployment Insurance call center, facilitating multiagency discussions regarding the purchase of personal protective equipment and industrial hygiene, and assisting in the discussions on housing relief are some ways I’ve contributed to ensuring CARE act funds are getting to individuals and organizations impacted by COVID-19.
I think both the House and the Senate committees are doing important work to both hold the Administration accountable and to assist where help is most needed.
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?
I believe racism exists, but is less of an issue compared to the mainland U.S. due to our multi-ethnic population.
As a member of the Kauai County Council, I supported the police department’s request for funding of body cameras. The Kauai Police Department took the initiative, applied for grants, and became the first county in the state to implement a body camera program.
I’ve supported school resource officers, KPAL program, and community policing. I believe the cost of these preventive measures is much less than the cost of housing someone in prison at over $60,000 per year.
Civil Beat reported earlier this summer that City and County of Honolulu police records are not accurate or timely, making it difficult to understand the extent of the problem of police-involved deaths. Increased transparency is needed. Disclosures of misconduct by police officers should be made public, as long as officers are given due process. Yes, to be effective, law enforcement oversight boards should be adequately funded.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
No. Special interest groups with sizable resources, who may not necessarily be residents of our state, will influence votes. In a representative democracy, I believe there are many opportunities to have innovative ideas vetted through the legislative process. With hearings in both chambers, the ability to testify before numerous committees, the ability to revise bills to address valid concerns, and conference committees to hash out differences, the current system, while not perfect, works.
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, but I think some allowance should be given to the administration with respect to the time it needs to fulfill requests for information due to many employees working from home and doing other pandemic-related duties.
I’m a proponent of remote testimony and believe the electronic infrastructure at the State Capitol should be upgraded to accommodate this need. I will support funding for this upgrade and appropriate equipment and software to make remote testimony possible. Rules are also needed to ensure there are time restraints on remote testimony, consistent with live testimony.
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?
Climate change is an existential threat that produces sea level rise, severe weather conditions and higher temperatures. I experienced first-hand the impacts of climate change with the April 2018 rain bomb with 50 inches of rain falling in a 24-hour period on Kauai’s north shore. I advocated for and received stream debris removal and maintenance funds so that long-time nonprofit stewards along each stream can do this important work. I also advocated for two watershed management planning processes, studies and implementation funds to address the Hanalei River and Wainiha Stream.
I support tree planting, getting visitors out of single-occupancy vehicles and into convenient shuttles, support expanding public transportation, support electric vehicle charging stations in new buildings, and managed retreat of public infrastructure. In my district, for example, I’ll be supporting funding of a site selection study to relocate the Kapaa Public Library that is located along the coast and subject to the impacts of sea level rise and king tides.
Shoreline erosion and its impact on coastal highways is another critical concern in my district. I was a strong advocate for an increase in rental car fees to pay for highway capacity projects. These funds should be used to relocate highways based on priorities recently identified by the State Department of Transportation.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Prior to the pandemic, one pressing issue was overcrowding at Haena State Park. In 2017, I convened a group of stakeholders on Kauai to address the concern of overcrowding and illegally parked cars at Haena State Park. Over the next two years, we accomplished the following:
Affordable housing continues to be one of the most pressing issues in my district. I supported funding for a master plan of the 34 acres surrounding Samuel Mahelona Memorial Hospital. The master plan is now underway and we’ve secured funding for an EIS to follow. The master plan includes affordable rental housing, assisted living, an adult day care center, step-down behavioral health housing, an expansion of the current psychiatric ward and adult long-term care facility, and classrooms to expand pre-school to 3- and 4-year-olds. I will continue to champion this effort if re-elected.
I will continue to introduce bills to support affordable rental and for-sale housing, including funding the Rental Housing Revolving Fund and Dwelling Unit Revolving Fund.
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 has forced many people to work from home, which has relieved traffic congestion, reduced carbon emissions and increased the quality of life for many. We should take advantage of this opportunity to make telework the new normal. We can start with state and county government workers who do not have direct contact with the public. By providing laptops, software, internet access and training for supervisors, telework can be done efficiently and effectively. Rather than assigning office space and parking stalls, workers can use shared office space and parking stalls when they need to be in the office, reducing overall operating costs.