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 Gene Ward, Republican candidate for state House District 17, which includes Hawaii Kai and Kalama Valley. The other candidate is Democrat Keith Kogachi.
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 short bumper-sticker answer to this question is that Lt. Gov. Josh Green, a medical doctor, should have been in charge of fighting the virus and we would have avoided the many times our state leaders looked slow, confused, contradictory and incompetent.
Our economy is still twisting in the wind and we have had an outbreak of the virus in our care homes. All long-term care homes, nursing homes and elderly housing should have been targeted and protected weeks ago but were not and this lies at the foot of leadership.
A date and a plan needs to be offered to stabilize the business community lest our already fragile tourism economy will have an extremely difficult time to recover.
What I have done about this was to first put aside the myth that Hawaii could not require tourists to be COVID-19 tested before arriving in Hawaii. Please see the answer to the last question in this survey for an explanation of how Rep. Bob McDermott and I, with input and inspiration from Lt. Gov. Josh Green, put together a road map to open the visitor industry.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
The government should do what most families sitting around the kitchen table do, or what small businesses, or even large corporations do – they borrow money to get over a dry spell. Hawaii has done this quite well under House Finance Chair Syliva Luke’s leadership by making some general fund switches with GO Bonds, siphoning funds from the hundreds of special funds that hide money from public scrutiny, cut vacant positions in some executive departments, as well as making the rainy day fund rather robust – and not at the expense of feeding and outreach programs as has been inaccurately reported in the media.
There should be no pay raises for anyone in government service — elected or civil service; and there should be no pay cuts for first responders and teachers as initially proposed by the governor. And there should definitely not be any “Furlough Fridays.”
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 recently published an op-ed in Civil Beat about this exact topic. It was all about Hawaii’s six strategic advantages, only two of which we have taken advantages of, i.e., tourism, and defense spending.
In the article I noted that Hawaii had the potential to become the “Hollywood of the Pacific,” but the Legislature only threw a bone to the budding film industry by expanding the film tax credit from $35 million to $50 million, even though for every dollar we invest as a movie tax credit, we receive $4 in return in the form of taxes, wages and goods and services purchased. A greater expansion of the credit to $70 million would have cemented us as the “Hollywood of the Pacific” worth about $1 billion in annual revenues.
A second opportunity was that Hawaii can become the “Geneva of the Pacific” with its two elite diplomatic centers of excellence at the Asian Pacific Security Studies Center and the East-West Center— which now ranks as the fourth-best government-affiliated think tank in the world. These diplomatic centers, coupled with Hawaii’s central location between the United States and the Asia-Pacific Region, give us an opportunity to lead in peacekeeping efforts throughout the region in a similar way Geneva, Switzerland, plays mediator for European and African nations.
Third, Hawaii has the potential to become the “Kennedy-like Space Center of the Pacific.” Our state has played an integral role in space exploration throughout our history, namely training astronauts for the Apollo lunar missions and cutting-edge advancement aerospace technology.
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?
Hawaii has a structural problem. Its economy does not fit the needs of its people. It’s like a father who has eight children but he only makes enough money to feed three of them well, and another three he feeds modestly, and the last two he has on a starvation diet. Our Legislature then asks the question how can this father of eight cut his monthly expenses so he can better help his children? This is actually the wrong question. Instead of asking how can we cut the pie into smaller and thinner pieces, we in the Legislature need to think of how we can grow the pie.
Until we stop living off our good looks and start using our heads, we will always fall back on tourism because it is the easiest and quickest dollar, but in the long run it is not cutting it for our people. The number of people leaving the state, the lack of people voting, and almost half of our public school kids are so poor they qualify for a free breakfast and lunch. This is not right; we need an economy that supports its workers to support themselves – and without a government crutch. One contributing factor to this lack of attention is that too few people in the Legislature have small business or economic-related backgrounds, hence the topic of economic development is given little attention.
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 question is worded very diplomatically by not mentioning the rift between the governor and the lieutenant governor. The minority has a special role to play in this rift by just staying out of it. Do I need mention more when a democracy has largely a one-party government, these types of internecine wars are inevitable?
Seventy years ago the Republicans owned and ran everything in Hawaii. Today the pendulum has swung in the opposite direction and Democrats run and own most everything. Hawaii has to regain its checks and balances in government if these internal feuds are to be avoided.
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?
Hawaii is the gold standard for ethnic relations in the nation. The notion of aloha and ohana are real and practical concepts not platitudes and it also helps that we’re all minorities with no one group comprising a majority. At the same time there is always a need for improvement. Police training should be improved without question; things like the neck and torso being placed off-limits to police constraints is an obvious addition. In addition to increasing the quantity and quality of training there should be shift in technology of weaponry, i.e., more use of rubber bullets and other non-lethal methods to halt or immobilize potential arrestees.
At the same time our police need also to be protected by being paid sufficiently and not being tempted to be recruited away to West Coast police departments, as many are each year. We are presently over 200 officers short in the City and County of Honolulu and need to retain the officers that we have. In addition to salary increases, unless an officer has a major infraction of the law or committed a felony, officers’ privacy needs to be protected from revenge assaults on themselves or family members.
Lastly we must never forget what the preamble to the Declaration of Independence says without equivocation that we are as human beings all created equally. Anyone who thinks or acts differently is not an American.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
As a freshman legislator, this was my favorite bill to introduce. It was the epitome of democracy of having government of, by, and for the people. But the majority thought otherwise and such a bill has not been heard in the Legislature since probably the last constitutional convention in 1978. After introducing this type of legislation several times I realized Hawaii was out of step with the rest of the nation, which generally has both initiative, referendum, as well as recall.
Our present and past legislative leaders have chosen not to trust the people of this state and they use the excuse that the ballot box is where one exercises their right of initiative. Keeping the power-levers in the hands of those who want to preserve the status quo has continually prevailed. Change agents who favor initiative are feared and openly spoken against. Even a constitutional convention that is required by our state constitution to be put to voters every 10 years usually fails because blank votes are counted as “no” votes, hence the deck is always stacked against there ever being another ConCon or initiative, referendum, and recall in the state of Hawaii. Sad.
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?
Gov. Ige needed some emergency powers to act in the COVID-19 crisis and was given such as were needed. However, it could be said he went a bit too far.
I would vote for legislation that would make government actions and access to records more transparent, such as the bills I have introduced in the past calling for more transparency in budgeting and government decision-making, though the Legislature exempted itself from the Sunshine Law. Lastly my job as the minority leader is to speak out and point out these issues as the “loyal opposition.”
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 a serious planning variable to take into consideration, especially in our development plans and building permits. Proximity to the sea or nearness to the shoreline are two key variables that will impact our visitor industry by dictating setback guidelines and structural integrity of buildings. Regarding our reefs, the biggest imminent threat to them has been lessened by the legislation recently passed banning the use of oxybenzone in sunscreen.
The reefs which are most endangered by this chemical are located in Hanauma Bay and off Waikiki and have been found to have high concentrations of oxybenzone. According to the legislation that was championed by Hawaii Kai’s own, Friends of Hanauma Bay (and Lisa Bishop), this chemical will be eliminated by 2021 after giving the cosmetic industry a three-year window to recalibrate its manufacturing of sunscreen with the many other safe and effective anti-UV ray ingredients.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
The most important issues facing Hawaii Kai is over-development/lack of open space, homelessness and a shopping center full of potholes.
Hawaii Kai is about to lose its farmers in the back of Kamilonui Valley and behind Kaiser High School in the next five years because their leases will not be renewed. Ditto the ends of leases for the Oahu Club and JAIMS (Japanese American Institute of Management Science) a few years after that. A subdivision where our farmers once lived, a condo where we used to swim, or study Japanese, will change Hawaii Kai as we know it today. Also the Great Lawn across from Maunalua Bay was originally designated for high-rise development but the City Council in 1973 rezoned the parcel as preservation land and the condos were put up against the mountain.
My office has held town halls on this subject and as well as keeping close watch on building permits on the Great Lawn. I am also presently in discussions with the farmers and other leaseholders.
Homeless individuals have migrated on and off to the Hawaii Kai environs for the past five years or so. What I have done about it is to form the Hawaii Kai Homeless Task Force, which works with the community in reporting and removing, i.e., assisting the homeless to get services and relocate.
Regarding our Hawaii Kai Shopping Center filled with potholes, I am happy to report after 16 months of communications the mainland owner is coming around to fulfilling its promises. Safeway is expanding and getting a new roof. Repaving and restriping of the shopping center parking lot will follow.
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 and specific contribution is to help Hawaii out of the pandemic by the joint-authorship and implementation of “Making Hawaii Safe for Travel.” Rep. Bob McDermott and I were the first in Hawaii to develop a concrete road map to reopen Hawaii’s visitor industry. I worked with the White House to get the “green light” to proceed to develop a pre-testing of passengers prior to their arrival in Hawaii. Hawaii thus became the first in the nation to push this issue nationally and it’s the safest way we can assure visitors to return to our shores, and our workers to their hotels.
The saying, “if we build it — they will come” is now more so “if they don’t feel safe — they won’t come.” Testing all visitors within 72 hours of traveling to Hawaii, with no exceptions, is the new imperative to re-open the part of our economy that has over 100,000 workers on the sidelines and over $17 billion of spending left on the table. To re-establish Hawaii as a safe place to visit, we must first assure safe air travel and safe lodging. Likewise, our hotel, airport and rental car employees must feel safe when travelers enter our state, and any break in the chain of safety will slow the recovery of our economy both domestically and internationally.
This may not appear earth-shaking yet, but it is an idea with Hawaii’s fingerprints on it, which when combined with an emerging test technology (like an Israeli breathalyzer that gives a 2 minute COVID-19 result) will re-establish how we travel around the world in the future, and that’s a pretty big deal.