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 Lauren Cheape Matsumoto, Republican candidate for state House District 45, which includes Schofield, Mokuleia, Waialua, Kunia, Waipio Acres and Mililani. The other candidate is Democrat Michael Chapman.
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 response of top government officials highlighted severe fault lines in Hawaii’s preparedness. Communication from leaders has been unclear and at times contradictory creating frustration and confusion. The uncertainty and almost weekly rule changes resulted in many local businesses closing. Throughout the pandemic I have been in constant communication with my constituents, but with the unclear messaging I too am often stuck in the position of not knowing what information to provide.
The repeated business closures and uncertain reopening dates have devastated businesses. To reopen our economy and bring back jobs, we need to ensure that COVID-19 is addressed effectively via increased contact tracing and widespread testing. We need a clear economic plan that has buy-in from stakeholders and we need to rebuild trust in our government.
The current administration views the federal emergency funds as a way to compensate people during the complete shutdown. I believe a better choice would have been to use that money to compensate only those who had no other option due to being high risk while bolstering our medical capabilities to handle the pandemic. I would have kept as many businesses operating as possible. Finally, I would provide decisive leadership to build trust with the community to navigate the remainder of the crisis together and rebuild our state.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
The budgets we have passed this year are important steps toward maintaining a balanced budget without deep cuts or raising taxes. We eliminated many vacant positions, froze state hiring, and made responsible choices with federal emergency aid. Moving forward we must protect pensions, social services for our most vulnerable, education, first responders and medical staff.
With an unprecedented projected shortfall, we have an opportunity to restructure and prioritize the core functions of government. Any furloughs or downsizing should be a last resort, as substantially cutting the public sector workforce’s income impacts the broader economy and the state’s ability to recover. Additionally, in order to increase revenues for the state we need to find a way to reopen safely and provide opportunities for our local businesses to recover by restructuring laws that are a barrier for businesses.
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 believe there are three sectors that Hawaii should invest in to diversify: the film industry, technology and agriculture.
Film is an existing yet underutilized industry we can leverage. It is already a large part of the current economy and would be a strong, immediate economic driver. As a member of the Legislature’s Economic Development Committee I have advocated to remove the current cap on the Hawaii Film Tax Credit to give us a competitive advantage over many of the top film locations worldwide.
Next is the technology sector. We are uniquely located between Asia and the continental U.S. and we should use this advantage to develop a strong tech industry. As an island state with limited land space, tech will provide high paying jobs with a small footprint. Working remotely is easier than ever so encouraging companies to open offices in Hawaii and foster our tech sector should be a non-negotiable aspect in our economic recovery.
The third area is agriculture. Being the fourth generation from Petersons’ Upland Farm, I have a personal understanding of the challenges facing our local farmers. We need to invest in agricultural infrastructure, provide tax incentives for farmers and continue to promote buying local.
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?
We owe it to the thousands of public servants who came before and the thousands that will come after to fulfill our promises and pay the pensions they rely on. It would be unfair to the retirees and current employees to make any changes to the system. This means we have to take a hard look at reforming the system for future public employees and leaving the current system untouched for public employees that are already paying into the system.
We should consider restructuring and creating a new Employer-Union Trust Fund (EUTF) and Employees Retirement System tier going forward. Nothing should change for the people who agreed to the current system.
I don’t support reducing benefits for public employees even in light of virus-related budget shortfalls. 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.
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?
It is important for our government leaders to have an authentic and transparent leadership style in order to rebuild the public trust. This type of leadership approach focuses on honest communication with constituents where their input is valued. Each government official at every level of government is responsible for their relationship with the community.
As a legislator, I’ve taken pride in the strong communication my office has had with the community. We’ve sent monthly mailers, frequently post on social media, and my staff or I attend as many community and neighborhood board meetings as possible. Public confidence can only be as good as the communication they’re receiving from state leaders and the trust that they have for leaders to make swift and confident decisions.
In the Legislature, it’s important to respect the checks and balances that were put in place with our three branches of government, even when we might not agree with all of the governor’s decisions. It’s only through our personal interactions of respect that we as leaders will be able to model decorum and win back the trust of the community.
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 not immune to the issues faced by many police departments around the nation. Justice and equality under the law is a foundational tenet of a representative democracy. I support mandatory disclosure of misconduct as long as the information is disclosed after due process occurs. The Honolulu Police Commission should also be staffed with qualified, non-police members to give additional perspective and accountability.
Additionally, I would be in favor of a comprehensive review of the Honolulu Police Department’s processes related to officer discipline. I have supported legislation to increase community oversight of police and believe commissions should be given adequate resources to review complaints and find problem areas.
Our police officers are entrusted with great responsibility, and a level of trust is needed from their community for them to steward this role well. I am in favor of providing them increased training for handling complex ethics issues, in strengthening community relations, and teaching the social/emotional tools necessary to address the stress and potential traumas they face on the job. Additionally, their training needs to be increased to include more de-escalation tactics. I believe with the right accountability and training, we can have more trust within our communities.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
I would support a blended approach to a citizens initiative, meaning instead of having an initiative go straight to the voters, if passed the initiative would be mandated to go before the Legislature to be considered and vetted before becoming law. There have been many instances nationwide where citizens initiatives conflicted and confounded existing laws and ended up confusing voters and/or using substantial state revenues to mitigate.
It is a Legislature’s responsibility to have informed debate on bills before they become law and I believe that needs to be part of the process. There are hundreds of laws that make up the Hawaii Revised Statutes, and legislative members and committee staff are relied upon to identify any conflicts between existing laws and proposed bills. Additionally, hearings by legislative committees are important to identify possible impacts to citizens, and unforeseen consequences before a bill is made law.
This blended approach gives citizens a more direct hand in issues that the Legislature spends its time on while providing safeguards against special interest money abuse and ensures that the initiative fits appropriately within current law.
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?
The decision to suspend the open government laws was initiated in the beginning of the pandemic when there was widespread uncertainty about its impact. Meetings were discouraged unless they were emergent during the suspension. In May, the governor relaxed some of the provisions of the emergency order to allow the virtual meetings with public written testimony.
I believe the initial suspension should have been no more than 30 days. That time should have been used to ensure that the public could participate and to ensure transparency. Government decision-making should always be conducted in full view of the public.
The governor needs to reinstate open government laws and release records, minutes, recordings and all other materials that would have been public had the meetings taken place normally. Further, we need to take action on how to move forward.
Over the years I have introduced several bills for remote testimony and virtual participation in government, and it is clear that laws like these need to pass immediately. I urge my colleagues at the Legislature to look into creating policy regarding the new virtual world we have found ourselves in. It’s likely many meetings and organizations will remain virtual after the COVID-19 crisis is behind us, and it’s vital that our laws and dedication to transparency adapt to technological change.
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?
My district has miles of coastline and some of the best prime agricultural lands and open spaces left in the state. It is vitally important that we continue to find ways to protect our oceans and ensure that these lands remain zoned for their intended use.
During my time in the Legislature I have supported initiatives to soften the shoreline to ensure that our coastlines remains intact, supported a ban on oxybenzone in sunscreen to ensure the health and vitality of our oceans and reefs and I have helped pass numerous clean energy initiatives including our state’s 100% renewable energy goal. I have introduced bills for both water and air monitoring to ensure that we are protecting our islands. Further, I am a member of the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators, and we all work together to collaborate on ideas and key legislative initiatives for pressing environmental concerns.
As a mother I am keenly aware of issues affecting our environment and it is a top priority of mine to shape policies that will have a positive effect for us in Hawaii, to secure a livable state and world for our keiki.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Each year I survey the district to learn what the most important issues are for our community. The top issue is consistently the high cost of living. Therefore, addressing Hawaii’s high cost of living is my top priority.
I have introduced several bills concerning this, including: eliminating the General Excise Tax (GET); removing income tax for minimum wage earners, reducing income tax rates for the middle class; and increasing access and reducing cost of early childhood education through initiatives that increase certification opportunities to offset the teacher shortage and tax-credits for businesses that provide on-site preschool for their employees.
These examples can provide instant relief for our families, especially those affected by economic fallout from COVID-19. In addition to these measures there are long-term and structural issues we need to consider. The high cost of housing in Hawaii calls for practical, dedicated solutions to ensure future generations can afford to stay here.
We also need to consider our education system, especially higher education, to ensure our keiki are being prepared for future careers locally. We also need to incentivize affordable, and I mean really affordable, housing. I’ve spent eight years dedicated to reducing our high cost of living and would be honored to continue working toward making Hawaii affordable for our valued residents.
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.
During my time in the Legislature I have introduced various measures to increase government transparency. Currently each department uses different databases to keep track of their projects and spending. We need a uniform financial database system to allow state agencies to collaborate and share information.
I introduced House Bill 1593 this past session, which would create a database for all state agencies to use. This way departments, legislators and the public will be able to access information more quickly, work more efficiently and ultimately save taxpayer dollars. This will also remove barriers from interagency accountability and allow legislators to make data-driven decisions, which is essential when it comes to fiscal responsibility.
This pandemic has increased the public’s awareness about different governmental agencies, the strengths and weaknesses of those in power, and the importance of knowing where every taxpayer dollar goes. Public involvement and awareness is key to holding leaders accountable.
As a Legislature we need to work on keeping the public involved and informed, come up with procedures to allow remote testimony, and take advantage of the technology-driven creative solutions we utilized during this pandemic. We can improve transparency via technology, better communication and holding those in power accountable when they fail in their duties.