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 Bennette Misalucha, Democratic candidate for State Senate District 16 representing Pearl City, Momilani, Pearlridge, Aiea, Royal Summit, Aiea Heights, Newtown, Waimalu, Halawa and Pearl Harbor. The other candidate is Republican Kelly Kitashima.
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 coronavirus pandemic has put our leaders to the test. While there are obvious problems with testing, contact tracing and quarantining, we should be mindful that Hawaii has maintained one of the lowest, if not the lowest, infection rate per capita in the nation, largely due to initial emergency measures implemented in March and continued, as necessary, through September.
Hawaii is unlike any other state and comparisons with mainland counterparts don’t recognize unique threats to our residents. For instance, if we are unable to manage hospital capacity, we cannot turn to contiguous states. No other state is faced with interisland travel as a barrier to available health care.
We need to pour the lessons learned over the past five months into effective health-care measures while easing the burdensome restrictions on our kamaaina and business community. Ensuring the health and safety of Hawaii’s people must be the first priority, but it is high time to consider how to ease emergency restrictions in order to re-engage our economic drivers in a safe and sustainable manner. Beginning immediately, state officials must be more transparent and better at communicating information to the public, focusing special attention on hard-to-reach communities like the Pacific Islanders.
2. The state budget is facing record shortfalls. How would you balance the budget? What would you cut? What would you protect?
First and foremost, we need to ensure that essential services are secured and prioritized. While it is a daunting challenge to fund health and welfare programs with dwindling sources of state revenue, we cannot afford not to. Prioritizing services needs to be done with precision, so as not to cause additional, potentially irreversible, harm to our people, or our coronavirus-collapsed economy. Carefully identifying these services and reallocating funds from government work that can be postponed will help alleviate the most immediate issues.
Administrators and lawmakers should conduct a tax review to determine which tax credits can be eliminated or suspended. The Hawaii State Constitution provides considerable leeway for financing. Already, the Legislature has authorized the governor to borrow up to $2 billion to fill budget holes that are to be expected. State borrowing powers, coupled with support from the federal government, should provide the financing necessary to provide urgent care for our residents while moving forward on the path to economic recovery. I would hope this can be done without furloughing public employees.
3. What do you think should be done to diversify the economy? What would you do as an elected official to make that happen?
Hawaii needs to use broad strokes in creating incentives for new economic drivers. Identifying industries with strong ancillary requirements will help ensure that the economy will not only diversify in primary sectors but also in the services needed to support said sectors.
Agriculture, science and technology have deep roots in the islands. These are industries that require heavy support services to succeed while creating desirable employment opportunities for our graduates. Implementing incentives for these sectors will provide us with the first steps for a more economically diversified future.
Technology, in particular, offers strong potential. We should do more to make Hawaii a partner with Silicon Valley. However, in order to achieve this goal, we need to fund STEM programs in our schools that would enable us to build a cadre of highly trained graduates ready to contribute to a digital economy.
I support construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope, which can be an icon of Hawaii’s ability to support world-class science and research, as soon as cultural concerns can be resolved.
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?
In 2013, the Legislature established an aggressive payment plan to pare down the state’s unfunded liabilities and concurrently modified the benefits for future employees’ retirement and health benefits. I fully support those actions as a means to meet our contractual obligations for our government workforce.
I believe health and retirement benefits are a promise made to employees upon hiring – additionally, the Hawaii State Supreme Court clarified that benefits for current employees cannot be diminished – therefore, I do not support reductions in benefits for those already in the workforce.
While none of us can predict the financial end-result of the worldwide coronavirus pandemic, now more than ever, it is critically important for the state to diversify and ensure we create a sustainable economy. I remain hopeful that the federal government will lend immediate assistance to states like Hawaii that have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19.
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 an incumbent lawmaker, my duty is foremost to my constituency followed closely by my responsibility to foster the well-being of all residents of our state. I will continue my frank and critical discussions with the executive branch to advocate and fight for what I believe.
I maintain a good relationship with the governor and with colleagues in the Legislature I have worked with in the past. My leadership style has always been one of collaboration, with respect for others’ view. Understandably, democracy is a rigorous undertaking that pushes and pulls practitioners.
As an elected official, I will act on what I believe is right for my constituents and the larger community, not out of loyalty to a philosophy or faction. I believe that when the results of deliberations and actions are seen to be good for the most people, public confidence will follow.
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?
Discrimination and hate in any form should not be tolerated, most of all in Hawaii. I am proud of those individuals in Hawaii who fought bravely against bigotry and racial hatred in the past, and I wholeheartedly support non-violent and peaceful efforts across our country to right the wrongs perpetrated against people of color.
Transparency and accountability are more necessary now than ever. I fully support police reform where needed, provided it does not infringe on the safety and/or ability of our law enforcement officers to perform their duties. In addition, I hope to see our counties fully support law enforcement oversight boards in their jurisdictions.
7. Hawaii is the only Western state without a statewide citizens initiative process. Do you support such a process?
While I support the intent of the statewide citizens initiative process, I do not support the process in practice. My reasoning is that citizens initiative, especially in this era of hyper-political, conspiracy-filled social media, has the ability to circumvent the democratic process.
The citizen’s initiative process may represent the will of some people but it can also be used by special interest groups to circumvent the legislative process. Especially when backed by deep-pocket financing, the process favors those who are best at disseminating information, truthful or not.
It is for these reasons, that I place my trust in dedicated, duly elected individuals who get to know their constituents and best represent their interests. It is our duty to educate ourselves and understand each matter before we cast a vote.
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 governor’s amended proclamation — giving agencies flexibility in the timing of the response but still requiring a quick response — is far more favorable than complete suspension. It is imperative that we allow essential personnel to continue their timely work.
However, this should not be interpreted by any government agency as the ability to circumvent these laws. If necessary, the service should be continued by staff not tasked to essential services to provide the public with access and records in a timely manner. To step away from this transparency is the equivalent of breaking the trust of those who elected us.
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?
As an island community in the middle of the Pacific, climate change, sea level rise and threats to our reefs are issues that need immediate attention. The Hawaii Climate Change Mitigation and Adaptation Commission is providing valuable insight and recommendations. We also have wise counsel at the University of Hawaii and other research institutions. It is our duty as legislators to ensure that their guidance is considered and implemented.
Developing strategic initiatives and tax credits to strengthen our renewable energy sector while providing subsidies for industries with a direct net positive impact on climate change will establish a larger and more concerted effort than our state alone can provide.
It is important to realize that the state will need to work in concert with the counties and federal government to tackle this critical task. In unison, government can and will have an immediate impact on how climate change affects our islands.
10. What do you see as the most pressing issue facing your district? What will you do about it?
Since my appointment to the State Senate in July 2020, I have become passionate about the issue of digital equity and literacy. This stems from my outreach to school principals in my district during my first month, and realizing that many of our economically disadvantaged families have no or little access to broadband networks in their homes.
With distance-learning in our schools, it is discouraging to discover that a student is not able to learn because he or she does not have access to the Internet. This issue goes beyond education. Health care and access to social services are also impacted. In addition, Internet access facilitates social interaction; something that we as human beings naturally crave.
In this time of the pandemic, access to broadband is not just a privilege, it is a right. We need to build the infrastructure for broadband access (especially in public housing complexes) as well as provide devices and literacy training for kupuna. I am determined to pursue digital literacy and equity initiatives that will make the people of our district more resilient in the face of this pandemic.
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.
In the past, we have bemoaned how Hawaii is in the middle of the Pacific and residents have this feeling, albeit self-imposed, that our isolation has often contributed to our economic detriment. As is often the case, crisis breeds opportunity.
In a sense, the coronavirus pandemic has provided an even playing field. Everyone is working from home. We do not need to sacrifice our best graduates to go to the mainland to compete in the digital world. We can create a digital paradise here. We need to pursue policies that will lure tech companies here to establish tech hubs in Hawaii.
At present, we have a strong service labor sector that can continue to support economic drivers like tourism and construction. But we can expand beyond these markets and create opportunities for our best and brightest. There are immediate goals we need to achieve, including engaging and retaining experienced STEM educators.
The foundation is already present. We simply need to connect the dots to achieve long-term objectives. I would advocate working with the Hawaii Broadband Hui led by Burt Lum to map out these tactics in the next few years.