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 Sonny Ganaden, Democratic candidate for state House District 30, which includes Kalihi Kai, Sand Island, Hickam, Pearl Harbor, Ford Island and Halawa Valley Estate. The other candidate is Republican Tess Quilingking.
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 state is not handling the pandemic well for the working class. There is no clear plan articulated by the governor or the Legislature to ensure social stability in the face of an economic depression, in which there is no way for those in the hotel and service industry to return to work. Thousands across the state, many in Kalihi and Halawa, have still not received unemployment insurance, or have had their payments held for unknown reasons.
Thousands of hotel workers are concerned about continuing health insurance. Unemployed workers face the possibility of not having enough to feed their families. When hotel workers’ health insurance ends, the state may not be ready for the influx of applicants for health care.
This is no time for blame. The crisis demands bold decisions. Instead of stashing $1.6 billion, the Legislature must be exploring possibilities in earnest. These include a form of universal basic income, a rent and mortgage moratorium, an establishment of housing as a human right under law, and an expedited and automated system to enroll individuals in state Med-QUEST and other health-care programs.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
This is the most debilitating economic crisis of our lifetime. Hawaii must suspend the non-binding precedent of balancing the state budget and borrow from the federal government at historically low interest rates in order to maintain social stability as we recover from COVID-19.
We should pursue no austerity measures during the crisis. Diminishing state payrolls have have been shown to cripple economies and wreak havoc upon families. When cuts are considered, advocates, non-profits, small business owners, and service providers must be at the bargaining table, in representation of thousands of families across the state. The next legislative session will be transformative. We must immediately pass legislation that allows for procedural transparency, allowing for teleconferencing and video conferencing to deliver testimony, and for clear processes that determine how rainy day funds are spent.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
We must exhaust resources to keep taxpayer dollars from unnecessarily leaving the islands. I support taxing and ending exemptions for real estate investment trusts (REITs), encouraging block grants directed to local owners for business development and training during the crisis to support local innovation, and exploring pilot projects of collective-owned hotels and resorts. I support taxing second and third homes owned by non-residents to the maximum amount pursuant to law, and enforcing regulations against short-term vacation rentals to ensure hotels stay viable and staffed.
The reliance on cheap tourism and military investment took several generations to develop in Hawaii. As we transition to an economy that diversifies to local agriculture, clean energy and a more sustainable tourism, we must articulate an economic vision in which wealth circulates within the local economy.
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?
I do not support cuts to public employees’ hard-earned pensions or benefits. Building and maintaining a robust economy ensures that liabilities and health obligations are met. These cuts have been proven to destabilize economies, as many households rely on fixed incomes from retired workers.
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?
As a teacher and youth mentor, I promote civic engagement, and the necessity of people from historically underserved communities to engage with the democratic process. I value human life over an immediate economic recovery. In the present era, when we are so reliant on information from health professionals and best practices from around the world about how to proceed, the public appreciates direct questions and direct answers. To do this job well and ensure the public is informed, those of us in elected office must ask direct questions and expect direct answers.
Many of us are afraid of giving the wrong information. It is our job to research and communicate to the best of our ability. The current rift between the executive and legislative branches of government is not so wide that fear should take precedence over professionalism and diligence.
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?
Firstly, I respect the difficult profession of law enforcement. But massive public safety and police budgets are components of mass incarceration, which we can no longer afford. The state spends at least $47.2 million on private prisons, with plans for the new Oahu Community Correctional Center on a loan. The current plan will be a windfall for a private prison corporation contractor, despite a changing international dialogue about what actually makes communities safe, similar projects being scrapped across America, and growing local awareness regarding inequality.
When we replace OCCC, it must be done with community input and fiscal restraint. Lessons from around the world are unanimous: Mass incarceration does not work to make communities safe and costs too much. What works are more affordable community-based justice programs; housing; youth services; evidence-based models for rehabilitation; addiction treatment; job training; the zealous preservation of due process; and traditional cultural practices.
The history of policing and criminal justice on the islands is tied to economic power — who has it and who wants to keep it. Demilitarizing our police, mandating disclosure and altering budgets is as much about decolonizing our minds and envisioning peace as it is about sound economic policy.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
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?
No. Especially in an emergency, trust in government is predicated upon transparency. For years, advocates have attempted to pass bills which would allow for a more open process and the ability to use technology to testify and engage with lawmakers and appointed officials. If schoolchildren can be expected to civilly participate in online conferences and classes during a pandemic, we can expect at least as much from elected officials.
We must ensure residents, many who have worked their entire lives paying state taxes, are given everything the state and federal government can to ensure their health, assistance in housing, food and education. We should do so in a way that is through a direct and open process, unblemished by fights between the Legislature and the governor, and by secretive meetings between lawmakers and those with major economic interests in receiving cherry-picked rainy day fund projects.
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?
Much of what makes us resilient to climate change is based in an equitable housing plan. Because of the pandemic, we can now return illegal vacation rentals to local residents, develop alternative forms of housing for our houseless neighbors, and engage in “shovel-ready” housing that will increase housing in our urban core, particularly Kalihi.
In addition, Hawaii must serve as a model of effective and conscious actions related to climate change, based in Hawaiian and Pacific Island cultures which included forms of barter, trade, use of land for regenerative purposes and seasons in which portions of the land and sea are off-limits. The time is now to enact these progressive reforms. Many non-profits and informal community groups are already doing this restorative work; cleaning beaches, clearing mangrove, and managing the forests. Government must support these efforts.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Unemployment. Workers in Kalihi and Halawa have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic. The uncertainty is heartbreaking. I have been witness to much of it as a candidate, and as someone who works at a non-profit with families and children in the community daily. If we know tourism and jobs will not return in the next several months, we must prepare accordingly.
The state must not hold on to funding meant to go directly to individuals when the federal government, and other governments around the world, are injecting funds directly to states and municipalities. Once-radical concepts such as universal basic income should be considered. We must do all we can to ensure people remain housed.
In addition to a moratorium on rent and mortgage payments, enacted by the state, the Landlord Tenant Code should be enacted to have a hotline service, paid through the state Judiciary, an expansion of legal services by providers, an education campaign by the state, and the ability to appear pro se by telephone or online.
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 question is: How do we become more equitable and resilient during economic downturns, ensuring the economic viability of local communities?
Workers should own hotels as cooperatives. Workers themselves should be the majority stockholders in the visitor industry here on the islands. Thousands of people in Kalihi and Halawa have given their best working years to make Honolulu an international destination, so they should have the first say in who manages the industry, and how profits align with values.
It is labor; the people; that make the tourism industry run. Government must pass laws and support economic intermediaries that help finance worker co-op transitions, changing the leadership of the hotel industry from foreign asset managers to local employee-owned companies. It will not be cheap or easy.
But as we have seen, structural impediments fuel an unequal distribution of wealth, leading to social and economic instability. Worker buyouts of industry can offer a compatible, fully competitive, market-based pathway to keeping wealth on the islands.