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 Tess Abalos Quilingking, Republican 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 Democrat Sonny Ganaden.
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?
In the interest of trying flatten the curve, the mismanagement and lackluster leadership of the current administration had a huge negative impact on small businesses in Hawaii. In my opinion, the state government’s response could have used improved screening techniques of arriving passengers, more widespread COVID-19 testing, and better contact tracing.
Hawaii and our people are suffering, particularly in my district. The systems is broken. Many of my community members have still not received unemployment insurance with no explanation of why. We need leaders who will make bold decisions because most people will lose all faith left in our government.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
These tough economic times brought on by COVID-19 have shown us that we really need to make tough decisions on what we can cut. Working toward a balanced budget will require legislators to be brave and prioritize wants vs. needs.
I own my own business, and so I have to make the tough decisions every single day. I would like to go line by line through the budget in order to understand and see where we’re overspending, discover what we can temporarily cut, what can survive with less funding and what we must pay first. The first thing I think we should do is look at redundancies and make government more cost-effective and efficient. It won’t be easy, but as a mother, I make those decisions every single day in my own life.
Finally, it is a very unpopular idea, but politicians and legislators should take a pay cut. I find it incredulous that our legislators voted themselves a pay raise of 10% during this devastating economic crisis. That is what every voter should know and our elected officials should be called out on it. Our pay should be commensurate with the amount of time spent working at the Legislature.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
As we look at the economy, I think we have to figure out how to open tourism responsibly and safely. As we know, this is a huge factor in getting our economy back going, and will generate spending we need into our hotel industry, restaurants, retails, etc. This will give us much-needed tax revenues and employment will rise, bringing more stimulus to the economy.
I agree we need to diversify long term. One area that we should focus on is the technology sector. Considering our geography and business nexus between Asia and the continental U.S., and we should use this advantage to develop a strong tech industry. We have talented young people and as a small state with limited land space, tech will provide high-paying jobs with a small footprint. As we have seen from the COVID-19 realities, working remotely is easier than ever and a real solution where we can avoid having to convince companies to open offices here, given its reputation as being very unfriendly to business.
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?
From what I understand, there is no plan, which is the biggest issue we have in addressing this. The only plan we have is to interrupt employee benefits. But that is not a good way to look at it, especially since we are talking billions of dollars. I don’t support reducing benefits for current public employees. In the middle of the pandemic, reducing current benefits will cause more harm than good. We need to focus on finding a way to build back our economy and increase our revenue to continue paying off our unfunded liabilities.
I would support delaying contributions to the ERS (Employee Retirement System) until the state can start collecting revenues again and then begin more stable investments with contingency plans. I do not support reduction of benefits for hard-working retirees.
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?
This is what happens where there is a monopoly on governance, and it does not provide an environment for a competition of ideas. It’s been obvious by the imbalance of representation in our government, and the dismal results from that, that Hawaii is in need for a viable two-party system so there is a check and balance, a true vetting of solutions and approaches to our challenges, and stability that a balanced government would bring.
We need a viable opposition party to force public debate and bring much-needed transparency to an otherwise opaque and secretive process. Besides being the party that best represents my conservative values, that is why I am running as a Republican. Hawaii’s corruption in government has been a stranglehold to our progress for too long. The time for change is now.
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 will say this loud and clear: The security and safety of my community is paramount and I support our law enforcement wholeheartedly. I will never compromise on that. Our HPD reflects the sons and daughters our community puts up every day to uphold the law. And HPD officers put their lives on the line every day and I feel they should be respected and fully funded.
Of course, the death of any citizen at the hands of police enforcement is unacceptable. However, that behavior is a reflection of training, accountability and public education. Defunding the police is a non-starter for Hawaii.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I actually do. Right now, it seems that whenever there is a large public outcry on critical issues, our legislators know that they don’t have to listen and can do what they want. We have been lulled into being a nanny state, and our electorate needs to regain their power.
I think this is a great way to have popular demands recognized by lawmakers. They can ignore your online signature collection, they can ignore protests, they can ignore testimony, but they cannot ignore something on a ballot.
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?
Of course I support open records, transparency and to enforce the current law. Sunshine Laws are there for a reason.
The electorate should always be aware of what the government is doing, all the factors they took into making decisions, and the decisions being made to affect generations to come.
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?
The rise in sea level and the endangering of reefs are definitely serious problems. As I understand it, there are already initiatives which have city planners planning ahead in approving building designs, by accounting for the anticipated rises in sea levels along the seashores.
I believe the state should also continue long-term planning and investment to either maintain and protect or move critical infrastructure near our shorelines further inland. I believe in science and we must make critical decisions based on facts and not emotion.
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 is the economy. The realities of the COVID-19 lockdown have affected my community in such profound ways, and our people simply want to get back on their feet. But the people in my district want Hawaii to open safely and quickly so they can become financially independent again, while still protecting the most vulnerable in the process, most notably our kupuna.
Our community has always been concerned about the cost of living in Hawaii, and whether or not their children will be able to remain, work and thrive in Hawaii. They want to be able to maintain their own homes, while seeing their children being financially able to afford homes of their own. I would introduce legislation which encourages the development of affordable homes for local people, and promotes the creation of jobs across a diverse spectrum of industries to help keep our children home, our families home, and with bright futures.
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 am a small business owner, and I have been watching for some years now how our community has been so dependent on an unsustainable economy based solely on tourism and government. Now that we are on a devastating path to economic ruin, we look back in hindsight that this cumbersome and inflexible approach to building the economy was flawed.
The one big idea I would have is to reduce the barriers to industry and overregulation we have here in Hawaii. In 2019 and 2020, several business studies have rated Hawaii the least business friendly state of all 50 states. One of the things I would do is foster a healthy, diverse and competitive private industry that is totally disconnected from government spending but instead obligated to their communities and the betterment of Hawaii.